In Review: 'Ambulance,' 'All the Old Knives'
Michael Bay continues to make Michael Bay movies with a choppy action film about brothers on an L.A. heist, and Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton try to untangle their past as CIA operatives and lovers.
Dir. Michael Bay
Back in the summer of 2001, the brilliant critic Kent Jones wrote a semi-notorious Film Comment essay in defense of Michael Bay, particularly Armageddon, a film that most critics rejected and audiences embraced—a pattern that was set by his first two hits, Bad Boys and The Rock. Here’s the money graf:
Bay's ruthlessly maximalist approach to the job of filmmaking has less to do with the destruction of a cherished old idea of cinema than the construction of a whole new one. It's comforting to think that the current vogue for spatial and temporal dislocation is the result of historical amnesia crossed with some viral form of ADD, nothing a good dose of Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh wouldn't cure. But Bay, whose Armageddon DVD comes with an endorsement from his old film-school professor Jeanine Basinger, is no naïf. He and his brethren, both in and out of the Jerry Bruckheimer camp, are like real-estate developers, erecting new, cheaply fabricated commercial buildings in place of older buildings that have gone out of style. They know their history, but they live by the bottom line.
For Bay to get this kind of validation from the finest writer at the most prestigious film publication felt like a betrayal to those of us who found his work not only juvenile and moronic, but an assault on the language of cinema. The rapid-fire cuts, the unmotivated camera moves, the total disregard for the nuts-and-bolts of establishing basic spacial relationships—this all seemed reckless and incompetent, even as it was obvious that Bay wasn’t doing any of it by accident. Jones’ essay’s validation of Bay’s style remains painful to me to this day, but his analogy about the Bruckheimer camp “erecting new, cheaply fabricated commercial buildings in place of older buildings that have gone out of style” feels accurate. Those camera moves may be unmotivated in the traditional sense, but movement itself is the motivation for Bay. He aims to pummel the senses.
In his inane new thriller Ambulance, Bay gets access to a drone, and it’s like watching a kid playing with a new toy on Christmas morning. He whooshes down Los Angeles skyscrapers like a base jumper. He zips along the sides of cars during a chase sequence that gobbles up most of the second half, taking flight in a way that a traditional camera mount could not. The shots don’t go together—“spatial and temporal dislocation” Jones describes is still feature, not bug—but that distractible, need-for-speed style is as robust as ever here. And as dumb and enervating, too.
The first third of Ambulance revolves around a bank heist that recalls Michael Mann’s Heat in its scale and high-powered weaponry, but isn’t planned out nearly so meticulously by the robbers. (Or by Bay, for that matter.) Despite serving his country honorably in Afghanistan, Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gets no help from veteran health care services when his wife needs an expensive surgery. So he turns to his rogue brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), who just so happens, on this very day, to need an experienced driver and gunman on a $32 million bank heist. Danny has assembled a crack team of complete bozos for the job—to extend the Heat comparison, imagine a group that’s all Waingros—and things go sideways instantly.
Meanwhile, the best and most glamorous EMT in Los Angeles, Cam (Eiza González), responds to the scene when a police officer is shot trying to apprehend Will and Danny. In a bid to escape, the brothers seize the ambulance, take Cam and the mortally wounded officer hostage, and embark on a high-speed chase through L.A. that results in many cruisers flipping over or smashing into concrete barriers. Additional units, one led by a hirsute captain (Garret Dillahunt) and the other by an FBI agent (Keir O’Donnell), get dispatched into the mayhem, too, but that’s flooding the area with Wile E. Coyotes. They fall off the cliff face every time.
Though Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen are both excellent, capable actors, their sibling relationship isn’t as rich or complex as you might hope, given the divergent paths their lives have taken as adults. Will is in a bad spot, and Danny is a schemer who tries to get him out of it, but lacks his fundamental decency. The bank heist itself is the film’s strongest stretch, but even then, in a single location descended upon by multiple parties, Bay cannot be bothered to establish the spatial relationships crucial to building tension. It’s all directionless chaos and noise, and perhaps the only reason it works better than the chase that follows is because, this early, Bay’s filmmaking hasn’t gotten totally exhausting yet. 136 minutes is an obscene amount of time to spend on a thriller as simple as Ambulance, which has exactly the kind of compact premise that Walter Hill or Don Siegel could have carried out in slightly over half the time. Bay continues to turn noisy excess into something close to avant-garde mainstream cinema, just as Kent Jones claimed over 20 years ago. I still can’t join the revolution. — Scott Tobias
All the Old Knives
Dir. Janus Metz Pedersen
Miles and years divide the Henry (Chris Pine) and Celia (Thandiwe Newton) seen in the flashback sequences of the new espionage drama All the Old Knives and the scenes set in the present. In the former, it’s 2012 and both are CIA operatives in Vienna. They send their work hours attempting to foil terrorism and their off hours as a couple deeply in love. In the latter, Celia has left the job for a quieter existence with a husband, two kids, and a home in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry’s gone gray. Her hair has lost its girlish bounce. They’re now living drastically different lives. But, over the course of a luxurious meal at a five-star restaurant, as the sun sets behind them, those miles and years start to fade away.
This isn’t a rekindling of an old flame, however. Or it’s not just that. Henry’s arrived with questions about a hijacking that, back in their Vienna days, ended in tragedy, peppering Celia with new facts that might finally reveal who in their midst fed intel to the terrorists that led to the loss of innocent lives. As the tension builds, the film alternates between their difficult conversation and scenes from the past. Was it Bill (Jonathan Pryce), the superior Celia treated as a surrogate father? Could it have been Vick (Laurence Fishburne), their old boss? Or, as Henry keeps unsubtly suggesting, does the evidence point to Celia?
Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen (Borg/McEnroe) from a screenplay by Olen Steinhauer working from his own novel, All the Old Knives carefully unfolds a mystery that’s even more complicated than it first appears while exploring a relationship with unsettled business, one that ended with Celia fleeing the CIA after the incident and seemingly never looking back. It’s tautly performed by Pine and Newton, who play Henry and Celia as characters used to revealing as little about themselves as possible but who struggle to keep secrets from each other. They’re no longer lovers, but they still know each other better than anyone else.
Here’s a digression that’s not really a digression: Let’s talk about sex. Sex has all but vanished from mainstream movies with recognizable stars but not, as it turns out, from All the Old Knives, which features Pine and Newton in a couple of fairly explicit love scenes. Despite prudish arguments to the contrary that pop up online whenever the subject turns to sex and movies, these feel absolutely necessary. Not only do Pine and Newton convey their characters’ passion for one another, one scene in particular — in which both Henry and Celia seem gripped by a fervor they’ve never expressed before — plays differently as the film piles one revelation on top of another. It’s a depiction of sex not just for its own sake — not that that’s always a problem — but as a form of storytelling. These two were entwined at every possible level. What could have possibly ripped them apart?
The film, paced with care, eventually provides the answers, but the real thrill is watching Pine and Newton match wits as this one-time couple dancesing around the truth, and trying not to be overwhelmed by old feelings. It's a spy thriller set long after the thrill is gone but the possibility for getting hurt remains. — Keith Phipps
I'm a sucker for spy movies about how much it sucks to be a spy, so I'm looking forward to seeing All the Old Knives.
Bay’s films have never once vibed with my sensibilities but consider me intrigued by the idea of a Heat: Oops! All Waingro edition.