In 2014, the fourth season of Epic Rap Battles of History featured an episode pitting four of the most acclaimed directors of all time against each other: After going head-to-head to start, Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock were joined by Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick. In between variably dissing each other as poseurs and pseuds, the group all took shots at a fifth filmmaker: Michael Bay, who inevitably swooped in at the climax to proclaim his supremacy where it really mattered—the bottom line. “I don’t got that guilt money, I don’t give a fuck,” he raps with a hateful frat guy smirk. “I take my checks to the bank and I sign ‘em with my nuts.”
The satire here is apt. Bay’s $6.5 billion career box office haul as a director and producer puts him in the pantheon of commercial filmmakers. His success has come in spite of his critical reputation. Like David Fincher, Bay entered Hollywood via the world of television commercials and MTV, but he never accrued a similar reputation as a stylist—probably because his style was so assaultive. From the beginning, Fincher’s spots always deconstructed the semiotic language of advertising, but Bay always went for the hard sell, hammering his messages directly into the viewer’s cerebral cortex. The omnipresent 1993 “Got Milk?” campaign turned the historically innocuous act of hawking dairy products into a referendum on the consumer’s masculinity; the slogan wasn’t so much a query as a taunt, the rhetorical equivalent of a guy holding a carton to your head and sneering “Do you feel thirsty? Well … do you, punk?” As for Bay’s music videos, the most succinct way to sum up his relationship with subtlety is to say he mostly worked with Meat Loaf—the perfect avatar for the director’s steroidal, all-American shamelessness. Exhibit A: the moment in the clip for “Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” when Bay literalizes the elegiac lyric “They say he crashed and burned” by filming an actual airplane crash.
That Bay is a master of his own hyperbolic style is, by now, a matter beyond debate. Whatever you think of movies like Bad Boys, The Rock, or Armageddon, there’s no question they helped create a template for contemporary action cinema. The same goes for the Transformers series in the field of CGI spectacle. Bay is also, by any definition of the term, an auteur— a filmmaker with a recognizable visual signature and consistent set of moral and thematic preoccupations. These boil down to, in no particular order, hot chicks and heavy artillery. A shot in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen of Megan Fox splayed provocatively over a motorcycle’s chassis is like a synecdoche of Bay’s entire cinema—leering, vivid, alpha-male POV that doubles as a with-me-or-against me provocation. Either you get off on the worldview, or you get out.
Fox’s subsequent comments about how much she hated working for Bay helped consolidate his public image as an overgrown adolescent (although she clarified post-the #MeToo movement that he never made advances of any kind) and made the job of dismissing his sophomoric, reactionary fantasies that much easier. For critics, Bay’s trigger-happy moviemaking has been an easy target, both aesthetically and ideologically; when Roger Ebert reviewed Bad Boys II in 2003, he singled out a scene when Will Smith and Martin Lawrence berate a teenage boy with racialized language as an example of “needless cruelty.” “What was [Bay] thinking?” he asked not-so-rhetorically. “Has [he] so lost touch with human nature that [he] thinks audiences will like this scene?
A car chase sequence in the same film featuring naked corpses strewn across the highway is like the apotheosis of Bay’s tastelessness—it’s the original Coffin Flop—and the director is even more easily mocked when he moves out of his blockbuster comfort zone and tries to be Spielberg. In between attacking Kim Jong Il and Michael Moore in Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone found time for an entire musical number about how much Pearl Harbor sucked. (“I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school / he was terrible in that film.”). More generally, Team America functions as a compendium of Bay clichés, implicating the filmmaker for his part in reducing cinematic storytelling to a series of explosions, while at the same time conceding the vicarious, brain-dead pleasures of such pyrotechnics.
But from a certain, canted angle, Bay’s movies are recuperable not only on a technical level, but as an example of a filmmaker hanging ten on an increasingly crass national zeitgeist. In his review of 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the often against-the-grain Armond White surveyed the wreckage of the director’s mise-en-scène and called him “a real visionary,” adding that while “there’s still advertising porn in Bay’s soul, it’s so expressive of the media norm that it’s funny.” When the reality-based heist comedy Pain and Gain came out in 2013, its neo-picaresque brutality was embraced by proponents of the so-called school of “vulgar auteurism” as evidence that the filmmaker had torqued his usual showmanship toward social critique.
Almost a decade later, the auteurist argument for Michael Bay has been safely closed. The new talking points have less to do with canonization than marginalization: the idea that a commercial cinema that he helped to blueprint has passed him by. 2016’s Benghazi-themed docudrama 13 Hours was mostly dismissed as right-leaning wingnut fodder and resulted in the lowest grosses of Bay’s career; the $150 million Netflix production 6 Underground (2019) didn’t perform well enough to warrant a sequel. It’s in this context that Bay’s new thriller Ambulance is being sold as a combined comeback-slash-throwback: a self-contained, non-IP, hard-R rated action movie made for an actual studio instead of a streamer and released with a cheering movie theater audience in mind. With the exception of a couple of plot points involving FaceTime chat, the story—about a hijacked emergency vehicle perilously crossing L.A.’s various freeways—could have taken place in the mid-’90s; at one point, the characters even talk about The Rock, which isn’t just Bay being self-referential about his own 1996 breakthrough hit, but evincing a nostalgia that, in context, is almost touching.
On Twitter, it’s been pointed out that a filmmaker once considered to be one of the horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse has endured to the point that he’s now not only respectable but, in a landscape of mostly neutered mainstream content, represents a kind of an endearing, old-school life force, a feeling amplified by the fact that Ambulance was shot relatively quickly for the modest sum of $40 million—an amount that wouldn’t have paid for the catering budget on Transformers. “I just want to get out and shoot something fast, I’m tired of being locked up at home,” Bay reportedly told his agent in 2020. Swift, propulsive, and enjoyably unhinged in both its best and worst moments, Ambulance suggests that this time out, his basic instincts were correct.
The first sign of wit in Ambulance is that it opens with a character on the phone, on hold—the first and last moment of stasis in a thriller designed as a nonstop thrill ride. The guy playing phone tag is Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a war veteran getting dicked around by military bureaucracy over health insurance for his terminally ill wife—surely the closest a Bay film has ever come to a politically progressive setup, while still connecting to the anti-elitist ethos that makes him such a crowd-pleaser. Bay’s America is, no less than Norman Rockwell’s, a hazy fantasia made up of good, decent, hard-working people who just want to hug their kids and polish their cars and chase girls—it’s just that more often than not, they also end up being asked to break into Alcatraz or land a space shuttle on a meteorite. By the director’s doomsday standards, Will’s impending misadventures in the company of his adoptive and mostly estranged brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) are modest stuff. After welcoming Will into his open-concept body shop (filled, just as you’d hope in a movie by our reigning gearhead artist, with almost obscenely shiny vintage vehicles), Danny—who, by the way, is also L.A.’s most notorious bank robber—invites him to pitch in on One Last Big Score. In case you’re wondering: Yes, it will be easy, and nobody will get hurt.
Bay isn’t a heist-movie specialist like Michael Mann, and the scene when Danny and Will’s crew infiltrate a mostly unoccupied branch and empty the safe is like a junior varsity riff on Heat, except that in this case, Danny is like a cross between McCauley and Waingro—which is to say his own worst enemy. When things inevitably go wrong, the brothers end up commandeering an ambulance and taking a wounded cop hostage alongside unflappable EMT Cam (Eiza González), who—in an unexpected structural move—is paired with Will at the plot’s moral center. Instead of a damsel in distress, she’s a fully fleshed-out protagonist, and she’s the driving force behind the film’s most outrageous and effective set piece, which involves an act of amateur surgery being performed without equipment at 100 miles an hour—a mix of Speed and Saw that goes so far into gross-out territory that it bursts (literally) through the other side into sublime slapstick.
Therein lies the fun of Ambulance, which is on one level almost comically predictable—a movie we’ve all seen before many times—but keeps wringing nice, specific little twists on familiar tropes, like the surprise appearance of a dog belonging to the LAPD captain quarterbacking the high-speed pursuit, or an inexplicable group sing-along to a Yacht Rock hit that’s surely Bay’s best needle drop since The Rock deployed Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Whatever the film lacks in credibility—or physical or psychological coherence—it makes up for in sheer momentum, which goes for the camerawork as much as the vehicles it’s pursuing. The weightless, disembodied drone shots punctuating nearly every sequence suit the kamikaze vibe perfectly. Bay also gets admirable efforts from his actors, beginning with Gyllenhaal’s wild-eyed villainy—edging closer and closer to Dennis Hopper territory with each new movie—and including the rapport between Mateen and González, both of whom opt to underplay as their costar (and the movie around them) spiral further and further over the top. It doesn’t matter that the script keeps sanding off the edges of Will’s supposed moral dilemma by emphasizing his decency, or that the Blue Lives Matter subtext is so glaring as to be visible from space. It doesn’t matter that the big, sentimental emotions in the home stretch feel like they’re being orchestrated at the directorial equivalent of gunpoint—Got Tears? It doesn’t even matter that the movie peaks midway through and botches its own climax with some hapless staging. What matters is that Bay, who’s often distracted by his own show-off virtuosity, keeps things moving; he steers Ambulance across the finish line in one battered piece.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.