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Review: ‘Ambulance’ will raise your pulse and tug at your heartstrings

April 7, 2022 Updated Thu., April 7, 2022 at 3:01 p.m.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal star in director Michael Bay’s “Ambulance.”  (Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures)
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal star in director Michael Bay’s “Ambulance.” (Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures)
By Pat Padua Special to the Washington Post

There are certain movies that require more than a critic’s recommendation. Some, such as “Ambulance,” demand a doctor’s approval.

Director Michael Bay isn’t satisfied with making a movie that merely raises your pulse. He wants to inject pure cinema into your veins – and drive it all the way to your heart, which he then proceeds to tug at like a Victorian novelist (assuming, say, Charles Dickens reveled in shootouts and explosions).

If you think your blood pressure can take it, sit back, relax and set your great expectations for action.

Based on a 2005 film by Danish director Laurits Munch-Petersen, “Ambulance” careens fast and furiously with two brothers in the front seat of a stolen ambulance, leaving a trail of mangled bodies in the wake of a bank robbery.

Sounds like a clear-cut case of good guys and bad guys. Or is it?

Essentially a feature-length car chase through the streets of Los Angeles, the movie, on paper, would seem to appeal primarily to lower-level brain function. But it’s such efficient stimulation, it rises to a higher level of art.

With the help of Chris Fedak’s screenplay, Bay brings big-budget ingenuity and a clever dramatic tension to this bloodbath.

Take, for instance, the eponymous emergency vehicle. We first meet the seasoned EMT Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) on her way to a gruesome accident in which a child has been impaled on a fence. While her squeamish partner looks on in horror, Cam calmly consoles the child and doesn’t seem affected by the traumatic injuries.

In a nutshell – or, rather, in a heap of twisted wreckage – this set piece demonstrates what it is that Bay does so well: He taps into our morbid impulse to stare at a car wreck while making us feel for the victim. Here, Bay is especially good at playing with the audience’s sympathy.

One of the robbers is Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a military hero whose health insurance won’t pay for the surgery his wife desperately needs. Will’s last hope is his adopted brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a career criminal who just happens to need a driver for a bank job – one with a $32 million payoff.

Of course, the heist doesn’t go as planned, and in their getaway Danny and Will hijack an ambulance. But there’s a catch: Their passengers include Cam and a rookie policeman (Jackson White) who was shot during the robbery.

Naturally, Cam may need some help saving the officer’s life. Who do you think is going to step up? As framed through the lens of cinematographer Roberto De Angelis, “Ambulance” is in almost constant motion.

Even a simple conversation, in which Danny tries to talk Will into being his getaway car driver, turns into a fevered action sequence as the camera rapidly circles the actors like a dive bomber. The bonkers drone footage is a visual counterpoint to the steady Cam.

But how can the paramedic keep her cool when her nurse’s station is hurtling down the highway at 60 mph? Though most of the story transpires in close quarters, the setting also encompasses a sprawling tour of the City of Angels, making this film a drama not only of humanity but of geography.

In the history of cinema, L.A.’s streets have hosted decades of burning rubber, so when an FBI specialist wonders out loud why the fugitives have led them under the Sixth Street Bridge, it’s an inside joke.

From “Point Blank” (with Lee Marvin) to “Drive” (with Ryan Gosling), you almost can’t have a car chase in L.A. without using that iconic location. So much of “Ambulance” works like a charm, but acting-wise, it could use a deeper bench.

Gyllenhaal delivers a solid performance as the crazier of the two brothers, while Abdul-Mateen and (especially) González are convincing as their characters’ inner resolve is pushed to the brink.

But in contrast to Bay’s strong use of colorful supporting actors in the past – I’m thinking of Steve Buscemi and Udo Kier in “Armageddon” – the law enforcement side of the “Ambulance” cast lacks star power.

If extraterrestrials – say, from a planet without Hollywood – were to land on Earth and say, “Show me this thing you call entertainment,” you could do worse than to buy them a ticket to a Michael Bay movie.

Believe it or not, this one even has a moral. It seems to be one that’s all too rare these days: At the end of one long, chaotic day, what restores order most of all is a sense of forgiveness.

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