So… I saw Michael Bay’s parody of a Michael Bay movie.
Sometimes you need a sledgehammer to make a soufflé.
This ripoff should be called (S)Heat.
These were all lines that struck me funny while watching Michael Bay’s Ambulance.
But here’s the thing… Michael Bay’s first movie in 5 years (I refuse to count 6 Underground as a movie) is a thing. To think that in the last 15 years, this once-genre-titan has directed only 5 Transformer movies and 3 oddballs (Pain & Gain, 13 Hours, and 16 WhateverThatWas… what is his thing with numbers?), seeing him work without robots was more interesting that I might have expected.
Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor (1995 - 2001) is that kind of peak period in Michael Bay’s directorial career that we see in many film artists’ careers. It was when he defined a genre (along with Tony Scott and in one case, Simon West).
The journey into Transformers, I thought, was completed with his 3rd in the series, in which he achieved with CG robots what it seems he set out to achieve in each of the previous pictures… he (and a lot of tech artists) got them to act. But he kept making more.
Within the Transformers window (2007 - Current), Bay has been a very active producer. But he is not a defining presence of an era because he was a producer.
I guess, really, he hasn’t been as fallow as a director as it feels, these last 15 years. But as I wrote, it doesn’t feel like we have seen that guy we remember since 2009, though I was thrilled by the idea of him finding a new path with Pain & Gain and wishing that even though it was deeply flawed, it was the start of a journey instead of the one-off it became.
So I sit down in my big, puffy recliner at Universal CitiWalk and right from the first shots of Ambulance, you know this is imagery made for a big screen.
But within a few minutes, it is also clear that trying to watch this film on a smaller TV screen - no matter how good - might make you queasy, as it’s like staring into a blender on full speed from the inside.
Bay’s skill set is of the highest order. Very few directors can do what he does. The problem, however, is that his skill set is not appropriate for every script.
This script’s author, Chris Fedek, is a TV series guy. This is his first feature. He starts with Heat, then segues to Speed, then adds in some Friedkin, some Walter Hill, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, a touch of Hurt Locker, some Dead Ringers… in other words, the kind of genre-hyper pastiche that would make a rising superstar out of some young director on a 50-day schedule, inventing on the run to get everything shot.
Instead, Fedek drew a guy who wants 3 helicopters in the shot when even one doesn’t make much sense. Fedek got the director who, instead of just hiring the pretty guy star slumming for cash for the crazy charismatic character, he hires the 3 most beautiful people he can to fill all three leads and even makes the old, grizzled dark force of nature a pretty man with a scar (A. Martinez). Geez… he even made Garrett Dillahunt go to the gym, it looks like, and he doesn’t even have to take off his shirt… though he does have the signature biggest-goofiest-loveable dog who apparently passes wind a lot. Fedek got the guy for whom “more” is just a starting point.
Bay takes this script and force feeds it crack from 2002. He just wouldn’t let it become anything other than relentless.
Michael Bay may feel he has no choice at this point. He’s now in his mid-50s. He’s had enormous, life-freeing success. And apparently, he isn’t willing to just make a fun, action-filled movie. He needs to make a MICHAEL BAY movie. But it’s like trying to stuff a Cornish game hen with a 20-pound turkey. It’s too much.
Moreover… I can’t remember a single hyper sequence that is worth going back to watch. There are all kinds of cool cinematic tricks. But instead of having the most beautiful Picasso on the wall, Bay puts 5 of them in a row… making them all seem less special in the process.
I am not a critic of long movies. But in this case, the running time of 2:16 tells you everything. This is meant to be the kind of movie that has to go back in at the end of the edit to add some moody shots so it’s a full 90 minutes and can be sold internationally. But instead, all I could think around 1:45 was “there better be one more big twist to make the next half hour worth it.” There wasn’t… at least not one that was well conceived or we didn’t see signaled with 100 flares for the last hour.
Thing is, when a movie like this, which is meant to be non-stop go-go-go, without time to think too much about the details, takes it’s time and repeats stuff over and over, you start thinking about the details.
Like… the entire movie is a giant coincidence. Had Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (still looking for his real - and deserved - star-making role) not walked into Jake’s kinda-place-of-work to ask for a favor, no movie. “Okay,” you say, “that’s not that big a deal. We’ve seen movies where they change the driver late in the heist planning.” Yeah… but the movie doesn’t set it up Yahya’s need or history well and when Jake asks Yahya to participate, it seems like he desperately needs Yahya to be involved, when, in fact, the heist is about to start as Yahya enters the scene. It’s crazy stupid… like doing the biggest heist ever is like going to the corner to get a quart of milk.
Then, as the movie goes on, what Roger Ebert used to call “people doing stupid things” is required to keep the story moving. It’s kind of the opposite of The Italian Job, where clever choices are made that keep the bad guys one step ahead of the good guys.
There are so many things in the film that are mirrors of other Bay/Bruckheimer work… including multiple references to Bay films that are pretty pathetic in a Bay film. (I love Billions, but the referenced quotes from culture can be too much… and they actually quoted Rounders recently, which is a little gross.)
Again… all the complaints about Ambulance become non-issues if the movie isn’t overstuffed and hyper-while-slowly-paced. The movie is like a person who wears a fancy outfit and they can’t stop referring (they think subtly) to their favorite accessory on the outfit. The whole movie stops while Bay overshoots anything he thinks is really cool and doesn’t want to chance you not noticing.
All that said… I would love to see a Michael Bay movie where he leaves us wanting more, not less. I can imagine a movie with a classic screenplay that Bay makes even more elegant with his visual skills. No actor ever looks more beautiful than in a Bay film, even when they are there to be the not-beautiful side character.
You know how had one of those movies, though he is a much more rangy stylist than Bay? Zemeckis. With What Lies Beneath. A really simple story structure - with twists, but clean and tightly written and one clear idea - in which style and visual stunts and Hitchcockian glamour was what made it fun. Too much. But gloriously too much.
While I am riffing on other directors, Bay reminds me a little of Baz Luhrman without the music. On a movie like Australia, it just didn’t come together, similarly to Bay and Ambulance. Baz was too Baz for his own script. (I’m hoping and believing that Elvis may well be the visual feast that Baz serves so well.)
To put too gross a point on it, Ambulance is Michael Bay’s artistic diarrhea. Everything comes out (EVERYTHING!!!) and it feels painful and grumbly and out of control.
I will still be happy to watch Bay’s balanced diet, normal, macrobioticed, but very skilled and impressive shit.
He can do it. And I hope he does.