Ever since Donald Trump completed the merger of entertainment and political news, pop culture across the West is inseparable from current events. People booed Michael Moore at the Academy Awards in 2003 for saying, “We live in fictitious times” as George W. Bush was beginning the Iraq War because of fictitious weapons of mass destruction—in 2020, Brad Pitt began his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor by thanking the Academy “for giving me more than the Senate gave John Bolton.” Just two weeks ago, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in talks to appear at the Oscars. The room and the country in 2003 was not as jingoistic as in the final months of 2001, but also, the war was out of sight, out of mind. The government wanted this war to happen elsewhere, and the media went along with their demands not to publish any photos of caskets coming home. How rude of Moore to bring politics into the Oscars—I remember that line of criticism very well, and less than 20 years later, you can’t get through a night of primetime programming without (often inane) political commentary.
This has effected the way people talk about art and popular entertainment. I recently saw someone refer to formulaic, unadventurous musicians as possessing a “right wing value set.” Elements of movies like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Green Book; and Licorice Pizza are written about at length, but rarely the movies themselves. It’s this bad joke, this character’s assumption, the filmmaker’s assumed politics—thin gruel and nothing to survive on. And what makes a movie “right wing”? The participation of the United States military? Count in Michael Bay’s latest film Ambulance, along with numerous other Hollywood productions.
Bay isn’t using stars here. There’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Daniel Sharp, the son of a legendary bank robber and a pretty good one himself; but that’s it, and he’s really comic relief to the real leads, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Sharp’s adopted brother Will, and Eiza González as Cam Thompson, a seasoned EMT in LA. Outside them, there’s a sea of faces moviegoers won’t recognize, because most of them look like real cops, soldiers, and mercenaries. There’s obviously a mix of actors and “professionals,” and it gives an otherwise ridiculous action movie a verisimilitude that comparable films lack because of all their familiar faces. Gyllenhaal starred in Duncan Jones’ excellent time traveling train thriller Source Code in 2011, and while that was a good movie, it lacked a truth the equally crazy Ambulance has. You know you’re looking at people that have killed in Bay’s movies.
Shot in the summer of 2020, Bay wanted to make something quick, and for $40 million, this is cheap and simple for him. Will’s wife needs a critical, experimental operation, but insurance won’t cover it. Desperate, he goes to Danny for cash. They used to do jobs together, but then Will joined the army, and they drifted apart. Well, Danny’s glad to see him, but he’s got no cash on hand, it’s all tied up in “this one big gig.” Of course the bank robbery doesn’t go as planned, and in the end the team of six hardened expert criminals are dead and it’s Will, Danny, and Cam in a hijacked ambulance with a cop losing a lot of blood really fast. They’ve got to keep him alive or they’ll never get out of prison, and Cam has to do her job. As the movie goes on, Will drifts again from his psychotic adopted brother and helps save the cop’s life, even assisting in an ad hoc operation where they cut open the cop, dig inside his stomach for the bullet, and he wakes up. He starts screaming, and Will says, “GO TO SLEEP!” and gets him back down. And he stabilizes.
The FBI and the LAPD chase this rogue ambulance through the city to make sure the cop inside is okay. More than two hours of this sounds exhausting, but Ambulance is also one of Bay’s funniest movies. Gyllenhaal plays Danny with a villain verve and comic absurdity that never lets up (at one point, Cam sprays him with a fire extinguisher, and he’s furious: “THIS IS CASHMERE!”). Keir O’Donnell is great as a very quick-witted FBI agent who went to college with Danny. In between radio negotiations, he mentions they’re in Glendale, “which I’ve never been to—my husband and I, we prefer the beaches.” The agent in the back leans in and says, “That’s the whitest thing I’ve ever heard.” Without missing a beat, O’Donnell replies, “Well, I am white, can’t help that.” Gyllenhaal has so much fun playing Danny you think he started the day out thinking this was a kamikaze mission, but his glee gives so much to what could’ve otherwise been something passable at best.
Visually, the movie cancels itself out: sweeping aerial photography with cameras that suddenly bomb down at seemingly impossible speeds and angles—all interrupted by Bay’s incoherent cutting style. It’s not “kinetic,” it’s never been, and while I enjoyed Ambulance as an original big Hollywood action movie, I’m not going to overcompensate and grade on a curve for the newfound auteur of practical car chases and gun fights. Bay should be commended for continuing to use practical stunts and blow up real things. His movies are spectacles with flashes of brilliance that are inevitably interrupted by an editing style that stymies them and prevents Bay from ever making a masterpiece. I can’t remember all of these amazing shots and angles because they’re all cut into a million pieces.
But the man believes in movies and lives by making movies—in his own words, he “had to go out and shoot something.” He’s collaborated with our government to make propaganda films like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, so I guess he has a “right wing value set.” What’s the issue? 13 Hours, like Zero Dark Thirty, was an abhorrent film, but so be it; is Ambulance a piece of “copaganda” because it revolves around saving a cop’s life—a cop that had the temerity to ask a bank teller out on a date? While she was being robbed? He didn’t know that, but he should’ve—that’s on him. I doubt anyone that bitched about Green Book or the Japanese voice in Licorice Pizza will say a word about the politics of Ambulance. Why should they?
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith