Despite receiving negligible big screen time, Ambulance is one of the more remarkable films in Michael Bay’s career, a late masterpiece that is comparable in scale and ambition to The Rock. It’s also a spiritual sequel to Speed and Collateral, the latest in a lineage of films that attempt to evoke the connective tissue of Los Angeles in a single sprawling trajectory. Finally, it’s a companion piece of sorts to Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, released the previous year, since both films feature Jake Gyllenhaal as a character who is connecting and coordinating first responders in Los Angeles. However, whereas The Guilty takes place entirely in a 911 call centre, Ambulance plays as a single car chase, and is shot almost entirely outside. Like many Bay films, it does away with regular exposition, providing us with a brief snapshot of the characters, themselves so many bundles of affect, in an abbreviated first act, before getting into the extraordinary heist sequence and car chase that comprises the majority of the film.
There are three main players in this panoramic sprawl, the first of whom is Danny Sharp, a career criminal played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who has spent his life constructing ever more ingenious bank heists. Then, there is Will Sharp, Danny’s adoptive brother, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Unlike Danny, Will has chosen to depart from their father’s criminal line of work, and has spent most of his life in the American military. Finally, and most importantly, there is Cam Thompson, a legendary paramedic, played by Elza Gonzalez, who we meet training a new EMT on his first day of the job. These three lives intersect, appropriately, because of a health crisis. Will’s wife needs surgery, but his military service isn’t enough to get them benefits, which prompts him to visit Danny for the first time in years to ask for help. No sooner has he arrived at Danny’s garage, which is owned by an organised crime syndicate, than he is roped into a heist on a bank in Downtown Los Angeles. During the crossfire, a police officer, Zach, played by Jackson White, is injured, and Cam’s ambulance responds to the call. Seizing the moment, Danny hijacks the ambulance, pulls in Will, and escapes back into the city, paramedic and police officer his hostages, as the LAPD closes in for a mammoth chase.
From the outset, however, Bay is less interested in the “characters” of these three figures as in their competing and often contradictory sightlines of the city. As the film presents it, first responders possess the most privileged sightline of Los Angeles, and this has only been intensified by Covid, partly because the public population has diminished, and partly because the pandemic has turned first responders into the beating core of the city as never before. Covid has permitted these responders a new kind of passages through Los Angeles, more fluid and more precarious than ever, and the film opens just as this passage is starting to be absorbed back into a more normal urbanity. In the moments right before the heist, Danny and his team don disguise masks in the elevator below the bank, only for Bay to momentarily and comically break the suspense with the appearance of an old woman wearing a Covid mask, who steps into the same elevator, oblivious to their intentions. This picaresque nexus between Covid masks and heist masks positions the heist on the precipice between the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic metropolis as it morphs and evolves around first responders.
While first responders may possess the privileged sightlines in the city, paramedics, in particular, have an almost preternatural perception in Bay’s vision. Cam’s rapidly shifting sightlines, as she checks the sightlines of her patients, rapidly turns the ambulance into a mobile omniscient eye on the city, suspended in the elusive space between cars and helicopters, the two main ways of mapping space in Los Angeles. To match the ambulance, Bay’s camera continually lilts and glides around vortical 360-degree perspectives, producing queasy contiguities that continually reset the horizon, and create a continuous lens flare around the sun, which has rarely felt so oppressively present in LA cinema as it does here. Forever curving down or around buildings, across squares and streets, the images seem to be peeling off the edges of a glassy windscreen as it traverses corners that manifest as flamboyant pivots in perspective, matched by rapid pans that breach multiple cusps at once.
In other words, this is Bay’s version of Knight of Cups, right down to the brevity of these arabesque shots, which are clearly determined not to settle into the stately detachment of drone cinematography, or the virtual disembodiment of first-person-shooter-styled tracking-shots either. Instead, Bay opts for an embodied circumambience that matches the movement of the ambulance through the city, often cutting within his shots, to offset fluidity with glitch, and only following his avatars up to a certain point before pointedly turning away from them to drift up buildings or cascade along plazas. That all turns the heist on the 1st Street Bank into one of the greatest action sequences in years, starting with a brief burst of claustrophobia that gradually spills into great swathes and sprawls of horizontal space – carpark, plaza, square, mall – as Bay resorts to extreme low shots that turn these flattest zones of the city into cresting waves. To survive the heist, and navigate this sprawl, Danny needs the preternatural perception of first responders, drawing in the police and then paramedics, before appropriating them as hostages in order to navigate the chase that eventually ensues.
This chase, “kind of like a mix between a chess match and a cage fight,” is also one of the greatest in years, worthy of John Frankenheimer in its beautifully formalist riff on the convoy shots that have always been Bay’s stock in trade. Since the police remain close in pursuit for most of the chase, the film effectively traces a single convoy as it coalesces and disperses and coalesces again, as if Bay were trying to outdo the OJ Simpson chase for sheer galvanising spectacle (“Get the message: we don’t stop.”). Critical to that energy is a post-woke banter that starts with an FBI agent being interrupted in the midst of therapy with his gay son, who is whining about not being appreciated, by a call to join the police operation. Yet the homophobia of earlier Bay features is offset when this same FBI agent turns out to be gay, matter-of-factly mentioning a husband who is an environmental lawyer, and loves the beach, to an ultra-masculine crew who don’t miss a beat before observing this is “the whitest thing” they’ve ever heard, before he admits “I can’t help it: I’m white.” Combined with Danny’s own queer energy, and one of the great unhinged performances from Gyllenhaal, Ambulance slyly concedes that Bay’s own gaze, his fixation on ultra-masculinity, is and always has been queer.
That post-woke energy invests the chase with a remarkable intensity as it evolves through its various permutations – first, circling around Bunker Hill and Downtown as rush hour approaches; then, venturing out tentatively into the sprawl; and finally, commandeering the highways, and arriving at the very cusp of LAX airspace. Across all these iterations, Danny is trying to elude both the sprawl and the sky, and remain positioned in the precarious space between helicopter and car travel that the ambulance alone can occupy – and only then if it leans into the paramedic sightlines of the city in the right way. Addressing the ground too emphatically will only make the ambulance more vulnerable from the air, and vice versa, as Danny realises early in the chase, when he seeks out a rare alley in Downtown, one of the narrowest spaces in the entire metropolis, only for a police helicopter to command the tiny sliver of sky above him at this precise moment. As the chase proceeds, the ambulance comes closer and closer to flying, launching into air the first time it clears Downtown limits, while the pursuing helicopters get closer to the ground too, thanks to some incredible stunt work.
This convergence of car and copter perspectives, and the ambulance’s efforts to elude sprawl and sky for a mercurial middle ground, quickly coalesces around highway overpasses, which bridge the gap between air and road more than any other structure in the city. As a result, these become the most contested sightlines as the highway chase reaches it climax – first, as the police helicopters uniformly descend to the height of these overpasses, and then as the police set up their snipers on every possible overpass at the East Los Angeles Interchange at Boyle Heights, two and a half miles east of Downtown. While Danny escapes this epic effort, it shifts his strategy, as he now realises he has to dissolve the ambulance back into the fabric of the city. If he can’t elude the sky-sprawl, he must disperse it into an even more confounding fluidity – achieve peak flow – which he prefaces by putting on Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” his and Will’s favourite song as kids, before shifting his sights to the Los Angeles River, which Bay presents in unusual flow by way of extreme low shots across the roiling surface of the water, and a liquefication of his convoy tableaux in the flamboyant plumes of spray that crest behind Danny as he hangs out the side of the ambulance to navigate an incredible helicopter chase. Finally, the river returns them to the highway, but the wrong way this time around, as they carve a flow of cars around them in an opposite direction, as Bay shoots it, Busby Berkeley-style, from the air, revelling in yet another balletic formalist riff on his career-long convoys.
In other words, Danny disperses the city at the nexus between freeway and river systems, which together bring him to a hub of fake ambulances that he has organised to meet him (appropriately enough) beneath an overpass. By this point, his flow is strong enough to pull in even the rail system, as Bay’s careening camera veers along the tracks to dance into the trajectory of the helicopters as they curve up from below. The multiple planes of the freeway are now replaced by those of the road and rail bridges over the Los Angeles River, suspending us back in that elusive space between sky and sprawl so thoroughly that Danny is cresting on the flow of the city itself. He no longer needs actual drivers – one tumbles out of a fake ambulance, and leaves it to continue on its own momentum, before detonating in a police barricade, while another car, manned with only a mannequin and an automatic machine-gun, descends on the ensuing chaos, leaving Danny free to leave the earth altogether in the original ambulance, now painted a lurid green, both a nod in the direction in The Ambulance of 1990, and another subsumption of the city into his scheme. For, right when dusk appears to be falling, this green ambulance conjures up the palette of night goggles, absorbing the diurnal rhythms of the metropolis into its surreal passage until suddenly vivid sunlight is on us again.
As Danny absorbs the city into his own insane trajectory, and Cam tries to save Officer Zach’s life in the back, Bay provides us with the most precarious vision of American healthcare since Breaking Bad. In fact, the spatial thresholds of Fortress Los Angeles correspond exactly to the escalating demands of Cam’s patient, as the City of Angels collapses into a body politic that’s fighting for its very life. As they’re trying to clear Downtown, cAM hooks up an IV so that Will, who is driving, and has combat triage experience, can donate his blood, and channel the propulsion of the chase right into Zach’s bloodstream. When they hit the highway, she realises she has to perform trauma surgery, and calls her ex-boyfriend for advice, only for the internet connection to give way right when Zach’s spleen ruptures. Finally, as they near the snipers, Zach himself wakes up with Cam’s hand is deep inside him, at the peak of the chase, getting a glimpse of his own viscera before Danny is forced to punch him back into unconsciousness.
Even as Cam is performing the most traumatic procedures of her life, Bay draws a sharp distinction between first responders and senior responders, converging the drama on whether Danny or the police are most prepared to sacrifice her to their own particular agendas. On the one hand, Cam and Zach are the final point of contention when Danny and Will seek safe harbour with Danny’s crime bosses, who demand they hand over the first responders in exchange for an escort out of the city. On the other hand, Captain Monroe, played by Garrett Dillahunt, makes it clear that he and the upper echelons of the police force are prepared to sacrifice a paramedic if it means recovering a cop. Even the other trauma surgeons, who Cam Zooms in from an upscale golf course, seem light years away from the coal face of the ambulance, which increasingly differentiates paramedics from all other responders. Unusually for a Bay film, then, there is no systemic attachment to the police or the military here. Instead, all that institutional affect is deflected into the sightlines of the ambulance, leaving only individual cops and soldiers, rather than their systems, to affirm now.
No surprise, then, that Cam eventually commandeers the ambulance, or at least convinces Danny to take it to the hospital after Will catches a bullet in the final standoff with the crime syndicate. The chase thus traces the circuitous path everyday Americans have to traverse to access emergency services, as all the surveillance and sightlines of Bay’s vision converge on the ambulance as arrives at the hospital. Accordingly, this space between ambulance and hospital is the most volatile so far, pitting Cam against Danny one last time, as he promises to “shoot you in the head on live TV,” but also against a military-police establishment that refuses to allow her to provide support to Will as he tumbles out of the ambulance, after saving her life by shooting his brother in the back. The institutions that were meant to protect Americans have, in this final dystopian vision, only disrupted the primal relation between carer and patient, which Cam has to single-handedly restore by braving the wall of officers and soldiers to bring Will to the cusp of emergency, aided only by a single policeman, Zach’s partner. Both criminals and the police converge on a rupture in the Hippocratic pact between first responders and victims, as the film’s manic energy climaxes around what should be a pretty simple exchange – a paramedic depositing a patient in the arms of nurses and doctors.
Instead, Cam has to take the whole burden of a flawed system upon her soldiers, before Bay cuts to a gleaming panorama of Downtown, the calmest we have seen so far. The one thing harder to map than Los Angeles is the connective tissue between health crisis and emergency ward, but having mapped that space gives Cam a very different mindset from the opening of the film. Back then, she only identified with this interstitial space, blithely telling her trainee she could forget about patients the moment she left them at the hospital. Now she realises she holds the precarity of the entire system in her hands, without the police or military to support her, as she seeks out a young girl she saved at the start of the film, who charges her with one plea: “Don’t let go.” Bay might have started in a familiar way, with a veteran neglected by society, an echo of the disgruntled vets that haunted classic action cinema, but it leads to a critique of American public life so seething that it seems to take even him by surprise, sending the film into a hyperactive freefall, in one of his greatest achievements yet.