Monday, 2 May 2022

Ambulance (2022) - Movie Review

Something weird has happened concerning Michael Bay’s reputation in recent years. After spending most of his career as a memetic punchline, the release of his last film 6 Underground seemed to spark a re-examination of his career against the larger Hollywood system. From what I’ve been able to gander, it seems that, in the wake of so much mainstream homogenisation of stories and even filmmakers, to the point where a lot of product can feel like grey mush shoved next to more grey mush, Michael Bay now feels like a breath of fresh air. There’s no mistaking his films for the work of anyone else, for better and for worse, and as an admitted auteurist, it is quite fascinating looking at this man’s body of work and seeing just how… fucking weird a lot of it is.

And I’ll admit it: I’ve taken part in that re-examination as well. After Pain & Gain showed flashes of a genuine talent underneath all the sensory extremes and bone-headed characterisation, and 6 Underground proving to be the most entertaining he’s been in ­years, I feel like I’ve also come around on the guy after spending quite a bit of my own time clowning on him. Some of that clowning is still justified, though, and the man is still on probation for his work on 2021’s crowning dumpster fire Songbird, but all the same, I found myself… looking forward to this movie?

It really says something about how much excess Michael Bay deals in on a regular basis when this film, that’s basically a two-hour car chase across stretches of L.A. highway, is Bay working “small”. The handheld camera remains in full effect, and every action scene is shot with the same emphasis so nothing really stands out visually, but the most interesting part of how this film looks is down to the use of drones. The drone footage here was captured by Jordan Temkin and Alex Vanover, who work professionally as first-person drone racers and… holy shit, it looks like it. They are just having an absolute blast with these toys, whizzing and spinning their way through the air as if the drones themselves are being filmed for the action scenes. I’ve seen movies where the cast look like they’re having fun on-set, but it’s rare for me to get that same impression from the production side of things, especially as part of the film itself rather than behind-the-scenes recollection.

That sense of the filmmakers getting lost in the allure of their own work is evident in the scripting as well. Chris Fedak’s screenplay had been in development for a few years prior, with Bay himself initially being the first choice to direct it, then it passed through others like Phillip Noyce and Navot Papushado, until it landed back in Bay’s hands. Considering how many direct references are made to The Rock and Bad Boys in the actual dialogue, I don’t know if these were always part of the script or if Bay himself added them in (wouldn’t be the first time he’s done uncredited writing work on his own films), but there’s quite a few instances where the film seems a bit… desperate(?) to make the audience acknowledge how cool this all is. Having various police officers remark on how expensive and “exciting” the police chase is doesn’t help that impression.

This is a translation-adaptation of a 2005 Danish film, of which I haven’t seen but, in my own defence, Bay admitted that he hadn’t either. But even without watching it, I can already see what could make this story work as a quick-and-dirty B-movie. Two bank robbers, escaping from the police, end up in an ambulance where an EMT is trying to save the life of an officer that one of the robbers shot. Have the film open in media res, while the big chase scene is going on, with flashbacks sprinkled throughout to show how each of the four occupants of the ambulance ended up there, maybe wrap it up in some larger idea of blurry morality and bonding with strangers over strange circumstances; that’s an easy 80 minutes killed right there.

Of course, something that economical and patient isn’t really Bay’s style, and as a result, there’s a definite feeling of flab to the 136-minute runtime here. In typical crime-thriller fashion, we spend roughly equal time with both the criminals (Yahya Abdyl-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal) as we do with the law (Garret Dillahunt and Keir O’Donnell), but the latter almost-always feels like wasted time, as none of it is particularly interesting. I guess some points are earned in how O’Donnell’s FBI agent is openly gay in-story, and yet there’s a rather shocking lack of stereotyping going on with him, but if the film just stuck with the ambulance and made this a proper bottle thriller, it would’ve fared much better.

That’s not to say that Bay and Fedak don’t have any good ideas of their own to bring in, though. The tension levels rise at a fairly steady rate over the course of the film, as the disconnect between what’s happening in the ambulance and what the law enforcement knows about what’s happening widens, and even some of the individual set pieces are pretty cool. Two of the best ones come in quick succession here, between a scene that’s basically a surgeon group chat where Eiza Gonzรกlez’s EMT has to operate on the downed police officer, despite not knowing how to, and an action beat involving a remote-control lowrider fitted with a minigun turret. It may wallow in its own incoherency, as Bay is want to do, but enough actual engagement pokes out that it feels like there’s a method to the Bayhem.

While a lot of its attempts at emotional engagement are pretty stretched, to the point where any semblance of a moral message that can be wrung out of it arrives with enough holes to drive several ambulances through, I can’t really argue with its action cred. It comes pre-packaged with the same hallmarks of Bay’s previous work, so it’s unlikely to win over any new converts, but within that framework, I’d argue it shows Bay once again finding a way to work within his means. His involvement here purportedly came out of a desire to shoot something, anything, after COVID led to the cancellation of one of his other projects, and all that restless energy behind the camera wound up giving this quite a bit of punch. If you’re willing to go along for the ride Bay has laid out here, I’d say it’s worth checking out. Just… stick around for the action, not the story.

No comments:

Post a Comment