Following the Sam Raimi retrospective on the Blank Check podcast (they recently covered Army of Darkness) offers a renewed appreciation for Raimi’s madcap ingenuity. Film nerd legend has it that The Evil Dead lacked the funds for a camera dolly, so Raimi and crew constructed a wooden platform to slide a camera down that would serve as the point-of-view for an unseen, malevolent force moving through the woods.
What endures about Raimi’s early work is this sense that anything could happen, and indeed anything and everything often did.
Michael Bay’s new pyrotechnics showcase Ambulance features several such tracking shots, this disembodied, omniscient eye racing between cement pillars, weaving between police cars, careening down the sides of buildings—all gleeful, mad exuberance in service only of its own excess. Budgeted at $40 million, Ambulance is a juggernaut compared to Raimi’s DIY classic, but modest in relation to the Transformers franchise that comprised about a decade of Bay’s output (the most recent, 2017’s The Last Knight, cost an estimated $217 million). What Ambulance shares with The Evil Dead is a go-for-broke mentality, exhausting the possibilities of its high concept premise, for better and worse.
Military veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs a lot of money to pay for his wife’s (Moses Ingram, in the film’s most thankless role) medical bills. Enter Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), Will’s estranged, adoptive brother/career criminal, who just so happens to be planning a major bank heist when Will comes knocking. The heist goes wrong, Will severely injures a cop (Jackson White), and the brothers hijack the titular ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza González) as hostage.
Ambulance is a remake of a 2005 Danish film directed by Laurits Munch-Petersen. I didn’t have time to track down the original and determine whether it’s as silly as Bay’s. I maintain serious doubts that it can be. Ambulance may lack the usual Bay absurdities of oil-drilling astronauts and a giant robot urinating on John Turturro, but each moment is stylized and operatic, every character a sub-Joss Whedon quip dispenser. Early in the film, one bantering cop quotes The Rock to another, prompting Cop Two, unfamiliar with Bay’s oeuvre, to mistake this for the wrestler. It’s excruciating (Bay made a similar self-nod in Transformers), but also a little charming; it implies a human with an awful sense of humor behind it, at least, as opposed to an algorithm, and that’s kind of where I am with these sorts of movies at this point.
There’s some business involving an FBI agent (Keir O’Donnell) being an old time friend of Danny, and Garret Dillahunt wearing a frayed baseball cap while trading yet more quips with Olivia Stambouliah. And wistful footage of childhood versions of Will and Danny playing cowboys that belongs in DVD supplemental materials I’ll never watch. None of this should work, and yet in the deranged alchemy that is Ambulance, kind of does. My favorite scene involves no-nonsense Cam performing impromptu surgery, at gunpoint, while receiving instructions via video conference call in the world’s worst Zoom meeting. It’s delightful.
Ambulance was something of a consolation project; Bay signed on out of desperation/restlessness when the pandemic put Black Five on indefinite hold. That might account for the Raimi energy. Bay’s movies have always been manic, but there’s something about the camerawork in Ambulance denoting a hunger for the outside, even if it’s in downtown Los Angeles traffic.
Runtime: 136 minutes
MPA Rating: R
Streaming: Currently in theaters