Remember steroided US remakes of foreign language films? They were a thing for a while but faded away. Now here’s Michael Bay doing over 2005 Danish crime movie Ambulancen by piling everything on screen at once. Jake Gyllenhaal must be on a redo-something-Danish jag because he came to this production, in which he has to struggle to be heard amid a literal car crash of other personalities and effects, from doing a solo turn in a remake of The Guilty. Given the it-is-what-it-is nature of Bay’s cinema, you can hardly cavil that this fails to make any narrative sense. Even the script acknowledges the plot can only happen because all the characters make bad decisions and are stuck with short-term thinking.
I think it’s more of a problem that Bay’s stress on eyekick effects over everything else means this is deafening, exciting in bursts, funny in bits, sludgily soapy in others, full of good actors but still manages to tell a heist/getaway story without suspense. Films as varied as Assault on Precinct 13 and Quick Change set ground rules early and keep the audience in the loop about who is who and where they stand and the shifts in their relationships. Here, all that vital foundation work is gabbled through and the stresses are weirdly skewed. At the end, to signify a character change, one of the plot’s survivors visits the hospital bed of someone we can barely remember after two hours of running time while several major characters’ fates are left unclear … perhaps on the offchance that there’s an Ambulance 2 to be made, in which case they might not be as dead as they look. Bay forgets a cardinal rule of meat and potato movies: we care more about a dog, potentially bereft and abandoned by plot developments, than some Hollywood moppet whose injuries we don’t register as real pain because this isn’t that sort of film.
Because this is America, African-American Marine veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs money for a medical procedure; it’s not quite specified whether it’s his wife (Moses Ingram) or baby who’s ill, and neither seem ailing onscreen. He gets a call from his brother Danny (Jake G), a criminal in cashmere, and is added at the last minute to the crew of a bank raid in downtown LA. It’s the kind of crime which needs meticulous planning and prep, so why does Danny sign up a new crook twenty minutes before the off? A ton of backstory involves the pair’s father, a murderous bank robber who’s being saved for stunt casting in that sequel, against whom both have rebelled – Will by going straight, Danny by being (so far) less kill-happy in his scores. Circumstances involving a rookie cop (Jackson White) with a high school crush on a bank teller and EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez) lead to a) the bungling of the bank job – which was about to go South since a cop team was ready to take the crew down as soon as they exited the building – and b) Will and Danny fleeing in a hijacked ambulance with the wounded cop and the tough but glamorous paramedic chick on board. Then, with a gay FBI man (Keir O’Donnell) and a grizzled LAPD Captain (Garret Dillahunt) commanding the response, the film gets on the road.
Bay loves car chases, though nothing here is quite on the scale of his arguably best work The Rock (which gets an ironic namecheck) and The Island (which doesn’t). We do get into the LA river (a favourite film location – see Them!, Point Blank and It’s Alive) for some tag with helicopters and the ambulance. The film keeps moving, with new perils and challenges every few minutes – Cam has to take livestreamed advice from trauma surgeons while digging around the injured man’s spleen for a bullet, Danny cuts a deal with a criminal organisation to provide a diversion though clearly just giving up would be a saner option – until a tangle of plot threads just get blown up with explosions and more gunfire. An offhand dialogue reference to a ‘North Hollywood’ incident seems to suggest this takes place in the same universe as Michael Mann’s Heat, but cops and crooks in this part of town are weirdly (and perhaps credibly) dumber, overarmed and less competent than Mann’s cool professionals.
Characters talking about previous Bay films (The Rock, Bad Boys) gets groans but there are patches of smart, funny patter – usually when actors we like are given a chance to play off each other, especially Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen (frankly, the film could lose forty-five minutes of car crashes and play better as an extended squabbling ramily reunion) and Dillahunt, O’Donnell and Olivia Stambouliah (a real find as a funny techie cop). As ever with Bay, all the components are there – but the assembly is overly intricate. For something as highly-wrought as this, it still feels like a rough cut that would profit from being pruned and put back together as a suspenseful, flavourful hour and a half.