In 2022, Michael Bay’s style of filmmaking is as quaint as a bonnet. A preference for practical effects rather than heavy-duty CGI, a distinct desire to fill the screen with movie-star-caliber faces, a penchant for melodramatic moments that, for better or worse, milk maximum pathos from the audience: the things that used to make serious-minded critics say, in the early 2000s, “I can’t believe I have to review another Michael Bay movie” are now the things those same critics are longing for more of.
Bay’s Ambulance—inspired by a Danish film from 2005, which already seems like a much simpler time—is arguably too much of everything: too many car chases, too much action-cornpone dialogue, too many wowser coincidences. But the too-muchness of it is the point and, the movie’s bloated runtime aside, the reward. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal star as brothers Will and Danny Sharp, two Los Angeles kids who have taken different paths in life. Will, preferring the straight and narrow, joined the Marines. Now he’s out, with a family of his own, but his government has wasted no time in un-thanking him for his service. His wife, Amy (played by Moses Ingram, who was extraordinary as Lady Macduff in The Tragedy of Macbeth), needs life-saving experimental surgery, and insurance won’t cover it. And so Will turns to his estranged brother Danny, who runs a luxury-car outfit—allegedly. But his real business is robbing banks, and he’s just about to pull off a big job. Is Will in? Reluctantly, he says yes.
Meanwhile, somewhere else in Michael Bay Land, a woman who is clearly the most gorgeous EMT in Los Angeles is also the best: in an early scene, she capably saves a little girl who has been impaled on a spiky fence post—ouch—after a car crash. Cam Thompson (Eiza González) is dedicated to her job, but she also suffers from that classic malaise known as blocked emotions. After she’s saved a life, she leaves the job behind and goes out for lunch—which seems possibly healthy for an EMT who’s facing human trauma every day, but never mind. As it turns out, Danny and Will’s heist goes awry. In a heated moment, Will shoots a rookie cop (Jackson White), whose life Cam tries to save—except her ambulance is hijacked by Danny and Will as they mount a desperate getaway, a total of $32 million in cash tucked away neatly in their massive square backpacks.
There’s more—so much more. An FBI agent specializing in bank-robber psychology dashes out of a heated couples-counseling session after receiving an emergency text (his obsession with his job is the reason he’s in couples-counseling in the first place). A bank robber thinks it’s a good idea to wear Birkenstocks on the job, and boy, is he sorry (I’d like to know more about him, but his story thread is quickly dropped). An extremely macho off-duty police captain, driving around Los Angeles in a very tiny car with a very big dog, is drawn into a high-stakes chase involving dozens of police vehicles and one ambulance (let it not be said that Bay doesn’t enjoy a good sight gag as much as the rest of us). At some point, Gyllenhaal sputters a line suitable for many occasions: “It’s cashmere!”
For a surprisingly solid stretch, Ambulance is great fun. Bay loves his skewed Dutch angles and tight closeups—we get to know every one of Gyllenhaal’s eyelashes intimately. The stunt driving is fleet and vital. Lots of stuff goes boom. Our heroine Cam pulls off a truly icky DIY surgery in the back of a speeding vehicle being driven by desperate men. The human component counts for something here: Abdul-Mateen’s Will is the character who does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and his anguish is the movie’s guiding emotional light. Gyllenhaal, for a change, plays a character with few redeeming qualities, and it’s a pleasure to see him kick back and relax into the movie’s multiple absurdities.
But before we hail Bay—the director of Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, and far too many Transformers movies—as the genius auteur of our embattled movie era, we should note that Ambulance loses its intensity in the last half-hour or so. A film like this can’t lurch into its final stretch; it needs to sail right past the finish line, leaving us laughing in its wake.
Even so, it may be time to rethink Bay’s place in the beleaguered realm of big-screen moviegoing. He doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body, but his boldness is one reason to love him. He has also said that Ambulance cost $40 million to make—for comparison, The Suicide Squad cost some $185 million—and was shot in just 36 days, during a pandemic, no less. We could use more old-school, one-off action filmmaking like that. All that said, when Michael Bay starts looking like a Shaker craftsman compared with other big-budget Hollywood filmmakers, we know we’ve entered a new era. You don’t have to be an ambulance hijacker to know these are crazy times.
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