The more we change, the more Michael Bay stays the same. If, almost 20 years ago in Bad Boys II, stealing a car from Dan Marino naturally leads to our mass-murderous buddy cops, Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith), swerving between naked corpses tumbling from the back of the bad guys’ truck—Marcus desperately whining, “This is unnecessary!”—then logically there is nowhere else to go, the indulgence of a legendarily indulgent director manifesting entirely. Perfectly. In the subsequent years he’s directed five Transformers movies, 13 Hours (regrettably encouraging John Krasinski), The Island, 2019’s Netflix fodder 6 Underground and Pain & Gain, arguably his second film to somehow epitomize his style. If Ambulance, his 15th feature currently basking in a gleeful critical reappraisal of Bay’s canon, feels as entelechial as Bad Boys II, it can only be because Bay has found himself in the absolute best time to be Bay.
Though an ensemble of Angelenos fills out the film as it barrels to pretty much the only conclusion it could have, Ambulance is about as tidy as a Michael Bay film can get. Bereft of complicated plot and mostly self-contained, the movie succeeds in feeling retroactively fresh; any online chatter about an ACU (Ambulance Cinematic Universe) spoils just how invigorating it can be in 2022 to get an action thriller from an old hand blockbuster director that reads as untouched by—downright disconnected from—any hyperliberal marketing machine. This is nostalgia, but for a subgenre of kinetic filmmaking Bay defined himself more than two decades ago. We miss the old Bay, but he’s the new Bay, which we’ve only recently realized is just a better old Bay. He, in turn, does not seem to pay attention to what we realize. Or what we don’t.
Within ten minutes we’re deep in Ambulance: Strapped for money to pay his wife’s escalating medical bills, let alone care for their infant son, Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) agrees to join his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, always a joy to behold) on one last big score, a bank heist that goes inevitably wrong. Subsequently, they shoot a cop (Jackson White) and commandeer the cop’s ambulance, also occupied by the “best” EMT in L.A., Cam Thompson (Eiza González)—just one more embittered soul in the grand gray tapestry that is the City of Angels. As Danny loses control and Will more and more accepts his fate as the offspring of a fabled bank-robbing psychopath, their bank robber father spoken of in hushed tones and unbelievable stories, the entire militarized might of the LAPD descends upon the stolen ambulance, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), a man who festishizes the police enough that Bay doesn’t have to. Even when FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) gets involved, he’s only invited into Monroe’s inner circle because he went to college with Danny.
Bad Boys and the fever dream of Bad Boys II are about how Michael Bay thinks that cops must be psychopaths in order to confront a modern psychopathic world. In Ambulance, as much as his vision of the LAPD comprises sophisticated surveillance and world-killing artillery to rival the most elite military power of the U.S. government—making sure it all looks really fucking cool—he also makes sure to interrupt an especially destructive chase sequence (as he once had Martin Lawrence declare the events happening on screen obligatory and nothing else) among so many especially destructive chase sequences, to have Monroe’s left hand, Lieutenant Dhazghig (Olivia Stambouliah), tell him how many tax dollars they’re annihilating. Later, many, many police officers die in explosions and hails of gunfire, bodies indiscriminately everywhere. One detects glee in these scenes, as if Bay’s countering Monroe’s dismissal of so many flagrantly abused tax dollars by blowing up half the LAPD in a spectacle that practically demands applause. Maybe Michael Bay no longer sees the utility in unleashing psychopathic cops on a psychopathic world, but maybe he never did.
Than again, it’s impossible to extricate the copaganda from a formative text like The Rock, or to parse the John Krasinski from the 13 Hours, and it’s not like Marcus and Mike are ever existentially punished for all the havoc they regularly wreak. Instead, Bay seems to have emerged in 2022 as not exactly “woke”—the comment about the ridiculous budgets of police departments being the most political he gets—but more concerned with depicting the immovable forces closing in on a person simply trying to survive.
His action responds accordingly: As is the case with the films of Bay’s aesthetic soulmate and contemporary icon, Tony Scott, Ambulance aches with a kind of coke-addled, luxury painterliness, cubist cuts (Why show a man walking through a door when you could show a man walking through a door from three wildly different angles and also show a close-up of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes?) and the subliminal speed of the images blurring into sumptuous bundles of color and motion, our brains just trying to keep up. Bay never settles on a coherent point of view besides that of the camera’s—juxtaposing the absurd confines of the ambulance with the absurd sprawl of L.A., his characters beholden to the reality of what we see—and, like in a Seijun Suzuki gangster flick, there is “nothing,” a void, outside our view. This is how Danny can wield a large gun while hiding behind a thin yellow vest, how a man can survive a ruptured spleen and four hands deep in his guts, just as long as we don’t actually see the gaping maw in his torso any longer. How Lorne Balfe’s score goes apocalyptic. How Bay’s unacceptable needledrops work despite not working whatsoever.
Bay’s action, literally all over the place and unbounded by physics (one swooping drone shot down the side of a crenelated building exists only for itself, but tonally jars the viewer from the slipstream of chaos unfolding, leaving unease and not a little bit of horniness in its wake), blots out nuance. That cinematographer Roberto De Angelis has only worked on one other film—JR and Agnes Varda’s Faces Places at that—and here seems to so seamlessly understand the director’s visual taste, leaves little doubt that Bay’s is a singular voice. It’s exhilarating. How we thirst for a blockbuster like this. Burn for it.
The cast responds in kind. Rarely unnatural despite Bay’s preternatural cityscape, they also seem to be figuring out their characters as they go. Or maybe that’s just on us. Gyllenhaal, especially, makes the most out of the whites of his eyes, filling the screen with his face’s manic negative space. He’s not a villain, but he’s also a psychopath. In Bay’s L.A., there are no sides, no good guys and bad guys, just a person who “saves my life” or doesn’t—just people with holes punched into their bodies and people without. This is Bay’s distinction between the “haves” and “have nots”: People who have mortal trauma and people who don’t. The film’s disposable blue collar Italian lump, Randazzo (Randazzo Marc), puts it simply: “L.A. drivers! They’re all mamalukes.” Behold this urban wasteland of struggling mamalukes—it teems with more style than we’ll ever deserve.
Director: Michael Bay
Writer: Chris Fedak
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González, Jake Gyllenhaal, Garret Dillahunt, Keir O’Donnell, Olivia Stambouliah, Jackson White, A Martinez, Cedric Sanders
Release Date: April 7, 2022
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.