Saturday, April 9, 2022


I’ve never been disappointed in a Michael Bay car chase. Even when the movie around it is one of his lesser pictures, there’s nothing like the way he films the grit of the road, the burning rubber, the squealing turns, the crunching crashes, bone-rattling speeds, spraying debris, and geysers of fire and explosions. He takes low angles with a moving camera that goes faster and closer than you’d think possible, hurtling beyond or behind or spinning between the moving elements, filling the frame with light and motion, cutting so fast you just barely get your bearings. Think his debut Bad Boys or its outsized sequel sending cop cars careening through one obstacle after the next, or his sci-fi escape actioner The Island flinging a literal ton of construction equipment off the back of a trailer to slice apart vehicles crossing their concrete-slamming trajectories. Is it any wonder, then, that his enormous Transformers movies are something like an apotheosis of this style? What better protagonists than the cars themselves, all oil and spark and motion contorting around fleeting human interests. There’s always something exhilaratingly mechanical about Bayhem, where flesh and blood meet the cold logic of parts and gears—animated by the passion for obliterating the senses in aesthetic reverie of all of the above.

His latest, Ambulance, is an answer for anyone who ever wondered what an all-chase Bay movie could be. After a brisk setup, the action starts and never lets up. Just a few minutes in, I found myself asking: is this one of Bay’s very best efforts? The rest of the movie just keeps answering: yes, yes, yes. Somehow it flies by, but never loses its rooting interests, every image a gleaming, forceful work of propaganda for itself. The story hits the ground running, with an unemployed veteran (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), in need of lots of cash after his insurance denies coverage for his wife’s surgery, secretly meeting up with his bank robber brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) for a loan. Turns out, the criminal bro is just about to leave with his crew on a big heist, but they do need a driver. So off they go. This is cross-cut with an introduction to a paramedic (Eiza Gonzalez). We meet her saving the life of a little girl impaled on a railing that rammed through her mother’s car in an accident. The jaws of life spark, she cries as the EMT grips her hand, then the camera drifts down from high above the ambulance like a guardian angel as they spirit her toward the nearest ER. (Maybe it's the movie equivalent of the early pandemic days, when people would bang pots and pans out their windows in tribute to first responders.) You can tell right away that Bay’s giving this material an extra fluid grace, and some real tenderness, too. We also saw a glimpse of the brothers as children in an intuitive wordless flashback at the start, two innocents wandering down a sun-dappled Los Angeles street. All this sentimental rooting interest is sketched in with hard-charging shorthand in immediate gripping visualization. We get it instantly, the better to care just enough as the action picks up speed.

The bank robbery goes badly, a cop is shot, and the brothers escape by hijacking the ambulance that arrives for him. (Guess whose.) The rest of the movie, then, is in the same vein as Jan de Bont’s Speed or Tony Scott’s Unstoppable—wow, that’d be a triple-feature to make you hyperventilate—as a vehicle just can’t stop, can’t slow down, is always on the move. The movie doesn’t merely zoom by; it smashes, careens, swerves, drifts, and dips. We’re taken on a tour of LA at top speeds, as law enforcement assembles (Garret Dillahunt wrangles the team of cars and trucks and guns and helicopters with gruff cowboy charm) and the ambulance keeps eluding their grasp. (One imagines the screenplay could’ve been written by driving around town wondering: what would it be like to go really fast through here, or what if a car fell off that?) Bay goes all in on blue-collar process, balancing the cops’ procedures with the robbers’ clever quick thinking. He trusts his actors to sell the immediacy of the moments. Gyllenhaal is a live-wire, while Abdul-Mateen is sturdily in-over-his-head, and Gonzalez is probably Bay’s best heroine, capable and steady and thinking, defined entirely by being professional and skilled while never drooled over. We want her to survive, while the movie does a tricky two-step in keeping Gyllenhaal more purely villainous while letting Abdul-Mateen remain relatively more sympathetic. We want them to escape for his sake, but clearly see someone needs to stop them. It’s a situation out of control.

This is brute-force exhilaration and industrial-strength sentimentality wedded together in Bay’s typical eye-popping frames zipping past in pulse-scattering editing. The appeal, then, is entirely in the way the variables keep spinning around them all the way through the explosive ends. The camera is swooping and swirling, freed to hurtle along every which way, flying top-speeds along highways and under overpasses and around tight corners, peering up at the concrete canyons or spraying through puddles and fires. This is Hollywood action impressionism, a work of blurry momentum and movement in which each image is crystal clear and every shot swarms with visual interest, cut together in a smear of sparks and sounds. This is Bay at his most indulgent and yet contained, more of a piece with his early films (he winks at them in the early going as characters name-drop a couple) than the gargantuan spectacles of shape-shifting cars from outer space. He’s still excessive, but his excess (aside from a cartel gangster subplot that rides an awfully thin line of stereotypes) is committed to amping up the concept and the characters—its as out of control as its central vehicle and the guys behind the wheel. We’re hanging on for dear life like the hostages in the back. I watched it with the realization that the 57-year-old director has now passed from being a shock of the new, through a high-gloss studio pro, into something like an old master of the form.

No comments:

Post a Comment