Film critics recently have been trying to encourage their audiences to return to theaters—cinema, after all, is a lot more impressive on a big screen and in the company of people who share our emotions. We want to laugh together and to cry together, as well as to discover what it is that makes us feel this way.
One recent movie aiming to bring audiences back to theaters is the new Michael Bay cops-and-robbers extravaganza Ambulance. I took the recommendations of my fellow critics seriously and watched it, partly because I’ve long liked Bay. He makes heartfelt, populist movies about the ordinary concerns of friendship among men, and about what it means to grow up in America, a rapidly changing world where your pride gets in the way of asking for guidance and yet you feel you need your pride, that it’s the only thing you’ve got, because, well, other people aren’t necessarily reliable.
Bay is famous, however, for explosions and the use of visual effects, not for the heartfelt stuff that’s also part of his skill set. Apparently, we have all sworn oaths not to notice the obvious moral concerns when we watch a movie. This is not to say that tech is not important to Bay; he shares the all-American love of experiments, of change and the possibility of taking control of things—of the world even—by remaking them. Indeed, Bay has replaced James Cameron as America’s action-and-tech movie director, since Cameron refuses to make more than a movie a decade. Not to say Cameron might not have his reasons for abandoning the genre: Bay’s rise as a director was simultaneous with the collapse of the action movie and the rise of a new contempt for any idea of heroism in American life, so far as cinema is concerned.
For his part, Bay isn’t giving up. He wants to prove with his latest, Ambulance, that action movies can still exhilarate audiences, captivate them emotionally, and also provide moral uplift, taking us through fear and fictional suffering to some kind of catharsis. He seeks to appeal to men and women both, to represent the different races (although Hispanics are presented as villains and Asians are absent) in America, and to show what we all have in common—the love of life that is revealed in our fear of death, the need we all have of medicine and forgiveness. Come to think of it, this could have been the great ad campaign for Obamacare had liberals thought ahead in 2009 and hired Bay.
The story that is supposed to accomplish all this is fairly simple: Jake Gyllenhaal drags his black brother, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, into an armed heist at a downtown L.A. bank. (There’s an entire story about which brother is adopted, whether they’re really brothers, and what is inherited from fathers.) The heist goes wrong on account of an innocent lovestruck cop, and then the two brothers hijack an ambulance with a nurse inside (Eiza González) in order to escape the encirclement, then go on the run from the police. There’s a bit more than two hours of this stuff and it’s sometimes incredibly well filmed, including some technological innovations. Bay offers really clever and daring drone shots of the car chases and crashes, which bring together the sense of weightlessness of flight and the fear that comes with near misses.
The interest lies in the following moral complication: One of the two brothers turns to theft out of desperation; he’s a retired Marine who cannot find work and whose wife needs surgery—and they have a newborn baby, too! This is also the only loving family in the movie and it’s there to break hearts and raise questions about why America doesn’t do right by veterans, a theme Bay has dealt with before in The Rock and 13 Hours. The whole story then forces this new father to choose between his family and his brother, who turns out to be crazy but is the only person who ever helped him.
Like more action movies than people realize, Ambulance is about deflating manliness, reducing it to justice, to obedience to some law that binds us all in fear of its potential for madness or even tragedy. The problem is that the very pious desire to affirm a universal humanity that should limit the violence these brothers commit depends on life being good for them, whereas the interest of the story depends on our understanding that they really are suffering an injustice, that America really isn’t good for them. One is poor, the other violent, because it’s the only way they can live up to their moral ideals, which are warlike. America cannot quiet down the violent man, who knows his own worth, and has failed to reward the veteran. So the political solution is easy but ruthless: Have the veteran kill his dangerous brother. That’s the teaching of this seemingly very sentimental movie.
There is a character in the story who plays something like a movie director, plotting the action and controlling the sequence—the chief policeman (Garret Dillahunt), who swaggers effortlessly, inasmuch as anyone does in Southern California. He is not only the authority on the scene but also a rather clever man, orchestrating the hunt of these two men with something approaching expertise. Yet he shows very little interest in the two brothers, who are, after all, exceptional. If we the audience can recognize that exceptionalism and he cannot, perhaps there is something inhuman in the authority he represents.
This discrepancy between the moralistic impulse and the ruthless plot solution, between the interest in heroic men and the insistence that pacification is almost all that matters in our society, tends to a desperate resolution that Bay does not wish to film. He wants to film instead a rejection of vengeance, a morality of forgiveness that is hard to justify, except perhaps for Christians, and that has nothing to do with the story. It’s a mess morally and as a plot resolution.
I cannot recommend Ambulance, because I despise stories that obey a woke diktat. If you can predict that the white guys who act confident have to die and be replaced (one proves to be a psychopath, the other is just cocky and in a position of authority), but the good guys who live and triumph morally are black, gay (also married), and an ambiguously ethnic woman, well, what’s the point of even having stories? This is bad as propaganda goes—the movie failed to move audiences, much less further the progressive revolution—but it’s also boring, even as an allegory of white supremacy being replaced by the victorious forces of tolerance.
You might never have guessed American-muscle-and-machine fan Michael Bay would make such a conventional woke story, but it makes perfect sense. He’s not woke, he’s just trying to make a movie that appeals to the moral issues of the day and brings Americans together. But this now requires, according to our liberal elites, that we get rid of some inconvenient Americans—white men. They’ve been in the spotlight for too long. One surprising consequence is that the theme of brotherhood, long a Bay favorite, is now reduced to empty symbolism, so we learn nothing about these two brothers as brothers, although we’re with them for the better part of two hours. Presumably, it’s part of the abandonment of manliness.
Thus, yet another part of the pop culture of the ’90s is corrupted and revealed in retrospect to have been almost innocent. Back when Michael Bay started making action movies, revolutionizing society and annihilating manliness were unthinkable in pop culture. It seems almost impossible to find artists who think the agony of men and the powers and dangers associated with technology are worthwhile subjects, even though young men are in a worse position than ever in peace time. We need action movies or similar stories to make sense of our social predicaments, not mediocrity polished with ideological gestures.