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‘Ambulance’ a messy, frenetic LA pileup of gunfights, car chases and Jake Gyllenhaal

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Director Michael Bay’s “Ambulance” celebrates Los Angeles as a shining city build on a cloverleaf of speed, concrete, yelling, automatic gunfire (sorry, pal, not in the mood) and rugged American individualism on both sides of the law. At weird intervals the action cuts away to a fluttering faceful of U.S. flag, as a reminder of where we are and who we are, and what the movie’s selling: national pride in a certain kind of mediocre action picture.

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None of the collisions, Gatling gun massacres (again, not in the mood) or SWAT sniper stare-downs in “Ambulance” can compete with Jake Gyllenhaal’s popeyed, this-guy-goes-to-11 dramatics in the role of the turtlenecked bank robber under pressure, a character whose heist management style tends toward hammering repetition of simple commands. There are many, many scenes in “Ambulance” where Gyllenhaal tightens the screws on someone to hurry up, and the dialogue defaults to variations on “Go. Will you go? Now!!! You have 45 seconds! GET GOING!!!” It’s like the Michael Bay version of Dr. Seuss’s “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!”

Without all the yakkity, “Ambulance” would very likely run about 80 minutes, not 136. The 2005 Danish film on which first-time feature film screenwriter Chris Fedak rebuilt this vehicle ran, in fact, 80 minutes. That’s nearly an extra hour, or a lost one, depending on your enjoyment level.

Danny, the sociopathic Steve McQueen wannabe played by Gyllenhaal, has one Last Big Score in his sights: a bank heist worth $32 million. His adoptive brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an Afghan War veteran, needs $231,000 for his wife’s experimental cancer surgery. Reluctantly, Will joins Danny’s crew.

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star in "Ambulance." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The heist goes sideways; Danny hijacks an ambulance because the name of the movie is “Ambulance”; luckily for the city at large and several of those maimed along the way, the infallible emergency medical technician played by Eiza González is “the best paramedic in town.”

So much more here! There’s the brutal Latinx gang lord who will stop at nothing to settle a score or deal with family the same way he deals with the cops. There’s a mid-car chase front-seat fistfight between the brothers. There’s impromptu gunshot-wound stomach surgery, with paramedic Cam sticking her hands in a wounded cop’s innards while FaceTiming with doctors on a golf course for step-by-step advice. There’s a large, flatulent dog (belonging, in reality, to director Bay) brought along for the manhunt by the LAPD Man of Steel played by Garret Dillahunt.

It’s a modestly scaled movie by Bay standards, if Bay standards begin with the “Transformers” eternities and then slide down from there. Now and then a sharp, gleaming composition clicks into place: three police SUVS screeching to a halt just so, for example, or one of the copious drone camera shots scooting along behind the actors or just above or below some signage in a nifty way.

Eiza Gonzalez stars in "Ambulance." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Problem is, Bay and his breathless editing relay team of Doug Brandt, Pietro Scalia and Calvin Wimmer lack any sort of visual strategy or rhythm. Before long the ground-level zip-along filming approach turns the cameras into a pack of invisible hunting dogs. No one moment or assault or eyebrow-to-chin seething session in close-up looks or feels more urgent or vital than any other moment in “Ambulance.” When a movie refuses to vary its pace, the audience subconsciously starts to mistrust the information and the exertions on the screen. Are these people overcompensating? Why is a movie that could’ve should’ve been 90 minutes, tops (see “KIMI” for reference, and for a really good high-velocity thriller), refusing to quit long past quitting time?

Michael Bay is no Michael Mann, and he’s not trying to be, but “Ambulance” travels a lot of highway traveled earlier by Mann in “Heat” and “Collateral.” Or even Jan de Bont’s “Speed.” Now that was a dumb movie worth seeing. Bay tries for levity in “Ambulance” — the Danish original tried for a lot more — but there’s no room for levity here. What good is a movie that can’t stop moving, or screaming, long enough to pace itself?


2 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for intense violence, bloody images and language throughout)

Running time: 2:16