For a while there, Michael Bay was arguably the biggest action director in the world. In the mid-90s, he directed Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. All three films made money — a lot of money. His style could be described as a kind of “golden hour on more than a little cocaine” kind of feel. It was kinetic. Brash. Kinda sleazy. For a while there, most people loved what he was doing.

Things change. Bay got deep into the Transformers franchise. They made money but were never beloved. He made the mean little crime satire Pain & Gain, and the Benghazi quasi-hagiography 13 Hours. Bay’s most recent film is Ambulance, which we’re here to talk about today. It had a $40 million budget, much lower than previous projects Bay has worked on. By April 17, Ambulance had made $40.5 million. The rule of thumb goes that a film usually needs to make two and a half times its budget to be profitable. For now, Ambulance is a financial failure.

But why? Is it because of the lingering effects of the pandemic? I don’t think so as Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 all had a healthy profit. Is it because audiences are, en masse, rejecting Bay’s schtick for more highbrow fare? No, because Sonic the Hedgehog 2 made money.* Is it because, as this perceptive article in Variety posits, the film suffered due to a crowded box office?

Maybe? Though the article goes on to make another point that’s more interesting to me. Streaming platforms such as Netflix have become the new home for the kind of action movie that used to enjoy massive theatrical success. Should Ambulance have been a Netflix original like Bay’s previous film Six Underground? Is it possible that I’m just overthinking and that Ambulance is fundamentally a bad movie? I don’t think so, and quality-wise, it’s very much in line with some of Bay’s better films. 

Based on the 2005 Danish film Ambulancen, we’re introduced to Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He’s a veteran now fighting a war against another pitiless foe — the medical bureaucracy. His wife Amy (Moses Ingram) needs thousands of dollars for life-saving surgery, and Will is also the father to a cute-as-a-button baby boy.

Will is desperate, and desperation leads him to reach out to his adopted brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal). While Will made a name for himself in the military, Danny became a crook. He’s the kind of gimlet-eyed scumbag who thinks he’s being charming by talking fast and loud. There’s tension between the two brothers and Will initially asks for either a loan or a “small job.” And, no, he’s not talking about dogsitting.

As it turns out, Danny is just that very moment preparing to rob a bank in downtown Los Angeles and invites Will aboard. The payday will be around $32 million. Unfortunately, Danny’s crew is not made up of the hardened professionals found in Heat.** Even more unfortunately, things go south when hordes of police arrive and engage the thieves in a gigantic gun battle. In a different film, one (or both) of the brothers would perish and we’d be in for a searing drama about a woman looking down the barrel of a cancer diagnosis and single parenthood.

But this is a Michael Bay film, silly! Will and Danny take Officer Zach (Jackson White) hostage, accidentally shoot him, and commandeer an ambulance driven by Cam (Eiza Gonzalez), a tough-as-nails paramedic. So now the brothers have two hostages, one of them a wounded police officer, are driving a vehicle not known for blending into the background, and have approximately nineteen billion cops on their tail. You can see how all of that would be a problem.

Ambulance is a good movie in the way that a double quarter-pounder with a metric ass-ton of bacon is a good meal. It’s purely and unapologetically fun. You know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that from time to time. If you’re looking for an action film bursting with soul and self-awareness, allow me to beg you to see Everything Everywhere All At Once. And if you’re someone who doesn’t happen to like action movies and know you’ll hate this one…why are you even reading this review?

Michael Bay’s entire directorial ethos can be summed up by the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Ambulance is no different. The pacing is like a racehorse on cocaine. There are massive explosions, percussive gunfights, and so very many scenes of men yelling at each other. Again I mention, that’s fine! That’s Bay’s thing and to complain about that is like complaining that too many superheroes are in the MCU. What floors me is that this film cost around $40 million, yet it easily looks like a $100 million-plus blockbuster. Bay is very good at using resources wisely in service of a film. For example, back in the old days he’d hire helicopters, strap cameras to them, and fly them around at an exorbitant cost. Now, with smaller HD cameras and (relatively) inexpensive drones, Bay can whiz all over the place without burning through money like an open buffet at Mar-a-Lago.

The screenplay by Chris Fedak is not as boneheaded as you might think. It takes considerable ingenuity to make a “one damn thing after another” movie in which the protagonists constantly have to deal with obstacles thrown in their way. For example, there’s an extended scene where Cam is forced to perform emergency surgery on Office Zach. She’s on a Zoom call with surgeons (one of whom is her ex, natch) talking her through the procedure. Will is assisting her, and she’s screaming at Danny to slow down (during a pursuit, natch). And then…the Zoom connection is lost. And then…Officer Zach’s appendix bursts. It’s nonsense, but it’s nonsense handled with style and aplomb. It helps that the foolishness is paired with characters that are broad, yet pretty well thought out. They have clearly defined goals, fears, and character arcs.

To play characters this broad, you need actors who can go big in their performances without looking stupid. As Danny, Jake Gyllenhaal comes dangerously close to frothing at the mouth. He’s always been one of those actors who understands exactly how to calibrate his performance to fit the tone of a film. Here, he wisecracks, cajoles, snarls, and bellows. His eyes bug out almost like he’s been thrown out of one of the airlocks in Total Recall. His chemistry with the more naturally low-key Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is excellent. The two men feel like brothers, and Abdul-Mateen is so good at playing the desperation of Will. He’s willing to insert himself into progressively worse situations if there’s even a chance of saving his wife. The third leg of this acting table is Eiza Gonzalez as Cam. Her character’s claim to fame is that she can keep anyone alive for twenty minutes, yet she’s utterly burned out. If you guessed that her character will, during the course of the film, rediscover a newfound appreciation for life…well, you’d be right! It’s dumb as hell, but Gonzalez effectively sells the real emotion behind the glaringly obvious trope. I was also mightily impressed that Gonzalez was able to escape a Bay film without being physically objectified. There’s always hope!

If Ambulance had been released in 1998 with Nicolas Cage and Denzel Washington, it would have been a massive hit. We’re not in 1998 and Michael Bay’s clout is not what it once was. Things change. It’s not a bad thing and I generally don’t have too much use for nostalgia. But I can’t help but be aware of the passage of time when a perfectly good piece of action cinema like Ambulance tanks at the box office. When that happens, I think the next question we need to ask is, what’s coming to replace it?


*Sorry, I admit that was a cheap shot. To be fair, I took my kid to the first Sonic and it was just fine.

**One of them wears Birkenstocks to the robbery, for God’s sake!

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.