At a time of strife, division, anxiety, and war, you might think the moment would be right for a nostalgic escape to the retro-excessive trash-movie mystique of the ’90s — an age when action thrillers were big, loud, decadent, “rebellious” and ripped off from “Die Hard.” “Ambulance,” however, could make you rethink that impulse. It’s directed by Michael Bay, who over the years has trafficked in a great many varieties of excess: massively scaled kiddie gizmo excess (the “Transformers” films), apocalyptic sci-fi excess (“Armageddon”), fake-authentic historical excess (“Pearl Harbor”), and good old buddy-movie excess (“The Rock” and “Bad Boys”). “Ambulance,” a propulsively violent and in-your-face chase thriller, stakes out a genre we might simply call ’90s excess.
Set during one long day in Los Angeles, it’s the tale of a bank robbery gone spectacularly wrong. And what it all comes down to is this: Following a street showdown that tries to out-machine-gun clatter the one in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” two of the robbers hijack an ambulance, with a paramedic and a wounded cop aboard, and they then race through the streets of L.A. pursued by an army of squad cars, police choppers, and news teams. It’s “Speed” crossed with the O.J. Bronco chase crossed with “Die Hard” on an EMS van, and it’s all served up in a pedal-to-the-metal mode of overwrought hyper intensity one could describe as Bay to the Max.
In “Ambulance,” there’s no such thing as an establishing shot of a vehicle cruising along a freeway that isn’t immediately followed by an off-angle, camera-whooshing-through-the-air operatic heightening of that shot. The camera doesn’t just move, it throttles — gliding, plunging and rocketing forward, traveling through tunnels and bending around corners. And the film’s editing revives the old cut-cut-cut machismo of here’s-what-a-former-music-video-director-is-made-of. It’s action montage on Adderall. It’s all supposed to be relentlessly jacked, but too often the folly of the Bay style is that it trowels on aggressive techno filmmaking energy like frosting, substituting it for a situation that’s actually authentically suspenseful.
Early on in “Ambulance,” Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Marine who served heroically in Afghanistan but is now struggling to take care of his wife (Moses Ingram) and infant son, looks up his brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), for a loan and maybe a small job. But Danny, a career criminal, sucks the desperate Will into joining him in a robbery of the Federal Bank in downtown Los Angeles that he’s planning to commit that very afternoon.
Does Danny have an ingenious plan to pull off a heist of $32 million? Amazingly, no. He’s got a crew of gnarly henchmen, including one they call “Mel Gibson” (because he looks nearly as scary), but after making the tellers get on the floor, the men walk around without masks, as if no one would be able to identify them. When a naïve rookie cop, Officer Zach (Jackson White), asks to come into the bank because he wants to flirt with one of the tellers, it’s only a matter of time before their cover is blown.
The slovenly lack of design — not just in the robbery but in Chris Fedak’s script, which is longer on late-’80s/’90s attitude (“These sons of bitches are about to have a really bad day!”) than it is on logic — gives the audience a curious relationship to Danny and his crew. Do we want to see these jokers succeed? Even as movie criminals, they don’t do a lot to earn our affection or respect, and from the start it’s clear that they have almost no chance. (Are they going to escape the entire LAPD in a hard-charging ambulance?) But if not, then what are we spending this 136-minute movie rooting for? Abdul-Mateen’s Will, the noble straight shooter, is our entry point into the film, but for a long time Gyllenhaal, in jabbering-psycho-lite mode, dominates the proceedings, and the character’s scurrilous abrasiveness is more wearying than charismatic.
Danny and Will aren’t biological brothers — Will was taken in by Danny’s father and raised as his sibling. But that father, we learn, was himself an infamous criminal; the whole family-background thing is a little abstract and a touch ludicrous. Chris Fedak has obviously studied the if-it-feels-good-f—k-it screenwriting method of early Shane Black, and he comes up with at least one scene that’s too nuts for words: Cam (Eiza González), the spitfire paramedic hostage, gets on the cell phone with her surgeon ex-boyfriend to guide her through an impromptu operation, with no anaesthetic, on Zach, who has a bullet in his spleen, which bursts right in front of us. At this point you may seriously wonder if you’re having fun yet.
The ’90s school of overripe action excess (Bay! Willis! “Con Air”!) produced a few classic movies, like the transcendently gonzo-yet-plausible-at-every-moment “Speed,” but mostly it was about turning off your brain and turning up the volume. There’s a place for that, and I’ll confess that as a critic I was too harsh at the time about a poker-faced preposterous intergalactic ballistic romp like “Armageddon.” Yet “Ambulance” is simply too much of a not-so-good thing. It never stops huffing and puffing to entertain you, but it’s joyless: a tale of escape that’s far from a great escape, because for all its motion it’s going through the motions.