The other night, I got a text from a colleague. “I’m so ashamed of myself for enjoying Ambulance,” they confessed. This slightly sheepish statement has been a common reaction to the latest from Michael Bay. Long considered the Antichrist — the epitome of the noxious style-over-substance approach that has ruined Hollywood blockbusters — Bay has made the same kind of mindless action spectacle again and again. This time, though, the movie is actually pretty decent, which has thrown my fellow reviewers into a tailspin. Have we taken leave of our senses? Or have we finally come to accept — even embrace — Bay’s monumental limitations? It is deeply strange to recommend a film from the Antichrist, and yet here we are.
I often think of a key line uttered by John Huston’s elderly, disreputable tycoon Noah Cross in Chinatown. “Of course I’m respectable — I’m old,” he tells Jack Nicholson’s private eye. “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” It’s a truism that the things we rail about when they first appear start to accrue a collective fondness after hanging around for a while. As such, a critically derided filmmaker such as Michael Bay, who recently turned 57, doesn’t seem as bad as he once was. It’s not that the world realized overnight he’s a genius — or that he’s turned over a new leaf. More likely, this changing perspective has nothing to do with Bay and, instead, is a response to what’s transpired around him. Bay may represent a lot of what’s terrible about modern movies, but modern movies have gotten even worse lately, making Bay look positively visionary by comparison.
Based on a Danish film, Ambulance is a little bit of setup, a shootout and then a super-long car chase. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Danny and Will, strangers who became brothers as boys after Danny’s folks adopted Will. A former soldier, Will needs money for his wife’s cancer surgery, and Danny offers to let him tag along on a bank robbery. But when the plan backfires, leading to copious gunfire and a string of corpses, the two guys escape by stealing an ambulance and taking tough-as-nails EMT Cam (Eiza González) prisoner.
Most of Ambulance takes place in that emergency vehicle as the brothers race around Los Angeles being pursued by the police. Apparently blessed with a full tank of gas, the guys only have to worry about not being caught — with Bay being gifted with multiple opportunities to incorporate slow-motion and chaotic drone shots. “I mean it as a compliment when I say there are entire sequences here which look as if they might have been shot by a monkey in a jetpack,” Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin wrote in his glowing review of Ambulance. Collin is right, and this is in a movie where characters blithely reference previous Bay epics like The Rock — not knowing that they, in fact, are in a Michael Bay film themselves. Somebody’s clearly having fun.
Having fun, of course, has always been Bay’s M.O. From the day he graduated from directing commercials to helming his first feature, 1995’s Bad Boys, he has brandished a bro-y aesthetic that topped any filmmaker’s that came before — not to mention several who emerged in his wake. He started his career directing action films for producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who personified Hollywood’s flashy, soulless 1980s, responsible for hits such as Flashdance and Top Gun. Simpson died in 1996, but Bay and Bruckheimer kept flooring it, giving us The Rock and Armageddon, adrenalized popcorn flicks that felt like extended guitar solos supplemented by the longest, loudest fireworks display you could possibly imagine.
We were deep into the blockbuster era by this point, but nobody was as shameless as Bay at ensuring that audiences were being served maximum radness. Whether it was sleek sports cars or beautiful women, all the eye candy was objectified and coveted. In a notorious 2011 oral history about the director, Bay’s producing partner Brad Fuller had a telling anecdote: “The first time I saw Michael on a bigger set, he was doing a video, and there was the hottest blonde girl I’ve ever seen in my life, and she’s got a wind machine on her. She’s dancing, she looks hot, she’s wearing a short skirt. He’s shooting her from a low angle. And he looked at a few of us, and there was this look in his eyes, like he had reached nirvana. It was childlike wonderment.” For more than a quarter-century, Michael Bay has made movies for boys who understand that glint.
And for just as long, it’s been customary to despise him and his movies. Michael Bay films rarely get good reviews, but the animosity really started to ratchet up with Pearl Harbor, the closest this sensation-driven director ever got to attempting to do something with a little gravitas. But his stab at solemnity and sweep was greeted with hoots and hollers. “Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours. … Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality,” Roger Ebert wrote in his damning review. “The film has been directed without grace, vision or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them.”
Other auteurs might try to prove their detractors wrong, salivating at the chance to show that they’re serious artists. (It wasn’t so long ago that Steven Spielberg was in a similar boat, directing The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and, most successfully, Schindler’s List despite all those who dismissed him as nothing more than a popcorn filmmaker.) But Bay has never pivoted to Oscar fare, never made a Stonewall or a Cherry. (Even his Saving Private Ryan-like 2016 war drama 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi felt un-serious, a real problem for a movie based on a real-life tragedy.) Bay was asked once what he considered “the highest form of moviemaking success.” “It’s not the awards that, eternally, we give,” Bay replied. Later, he added, “I just care about entertaining audiences and giving them an experience — make them feel something, excite them, entertain them, make them laugh. To me, that’s the highest form, because we make it to entertain people or have them feel something.”
By that metric, I suppose the Transformers films have to be considered a massive accomplishment: so many sequels, all with stupid titles, each of them pummeling and popular. For a decade, that franchise was a huge deal — and also a clear indication of Bay’s worst qualities, including those leering shots of Megan Fox, barrages of locker-room humor and some of the worst racism in a mainstream Hollywood film in years. Where once Bay’s bro-y action sequences had a heart-pounding euphoria, the Transformers movies were progressively more exhausting and numbing, endemic of a franchise age in which follow-up films were mandatory and gross capitulations to the ever-more-important Chinese audience were depressingly common. If you didn’t like blockbusters, you didn’t like Bay, who unlike James Cameron or Christopher Nolan didn’t seem interested in elevating the form. Bay was mostly interested in flattening everything under his boot.
Ambulance isn’t necessarily an advancement or improvement, but by Bay’s flimsy standards, it’s a far more human endeavor, focusing on three relatively normal people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. And unlike his odious treatment of women in his previous movies, Cam is actually shown respect, proving as smart and capable as the men. A low bar that may be, but by curtailing some of his most irritating tendencies — the male characters are still pretty bro-y, though — Ambulance can better focus on the headlong rush that Bay has chased after since Bad Boys. It’s excitingly constructed, kinetic as hell, a reminder that his pursuit of maximum radness can be a blast.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but I confess I felt conflicted about actually liking a Michael Bay film. It’s not simply his history of being a sexist jerk, which has been long discussed, but also his general attitude toward delivering lowest-common-denominator entertainment. And yet, I can’t deny I can find his style absolutely arresting, even hypnotic. And in recent years, he’s hinted at a little bit of self-awareness. Like a lot of people, I found myself warming to this frat-boy filmmaker thanks to 2013’s Pain & Gain, which, as Slate’s Sam Adams put it, “didn’t just embody the limits of thick-skulled bro-dude philosophy; it was about it, and that made all the difference.”
As with everything Bay does, Pain & Gain’s commentary was heavy-handed and kinda dumb, but it was plenty enjoyable, suggesting that maybe this profoundly unfunny filmmaker might actually possess something resembling a sense of humor. It was the first instance in a long time that it might be okay to like a Michael Bay movie.
Since Pain & Gain, Bay hadn’t done anything remotely good — there were still two more Transformers films to go — but his recent commercial decline, ironically, may have endeared him to critics. No longer the god of the multiplex — 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight was a commercial disappointment, an ignominious end to that moneymaking series — Bay made a Netflix movie and then, in the midst of the pandemic, decided to do Ambulance. Journalists love a good comeback story, and Ambulance could almost be seen as his scrappy, low-budget bid to reinvent himself. (As opposed to those $200-million-plus Transformers flicks, Ambulance “only” cost about $40 million.)
Indeed, there’s a B-movie purity to Ambulance that’s downright refreshing, especially in comparison to the gaudy CG that we’re now inundated with in event movies — and, it has to be mentioned, was popularized by bad films like his Transformers pictures. Bay doesn’t do arthouse movies — you could argue he doesn’t do art at all — but Ambulance’s gun-it intensity and stripped-down drama (amidst all those swooping cameras and frenetic editing, of course) is as close as this dude gets to back-to-basics simplicity. For Bay, Ambulance is a modest little movie.
But my newfound fondness may also be attributable to other factors. Yes, the Transformers films were the pits, but the dull sameness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complemented by the pounding pretentiousness of Zack Snyder’s DC films, now make this director’s brand of Bayhem… well, charming. I haven’t forgotten the misogyny and homophobia rampant in Bay’s films, but his movies’ douchey energy at least felt a little electric, whereas the strapping earnestness of what now constitutes blockbuster cinema lacks that kind of keg-stand frivolity. In Bay’s prime, his movies weren’t very funny, but in a strange way they felt more alive than the carefully manicured franchises we now get.
Does that make Bay another of those ugly buildings that’s hung around long enough to become respectable? Maybe. People get nostalgic for the stupidest things. But while watching Ambulance, I was jolted back into what it felt like during Bay’s early career, when his movies were already big and dumb but seemed jazzed by cinema’s rollercoaster-spectacle potential. As insufferable as Bay can be — bragging about his wealth or being sanctimonious about Ukraine — there’s a dopey integrity to a guy who makes no apology about peddling exactly one kind of movie.
Guys like Michael Bay don’t “grow” or “evolve” — they don’t have anything like a “mature period.” They just do the same shit over and over again. The only thing that’s shifted is our expectations. We expect so little from him and his movies that when a solidly entertaining film like Ambulance comes along, we’re almost too embarrassed to acknowledge we enjoyed it.
But don’t worry: Your secret is safe with me.