Recommendations: Rollerball and Ambulance

Jake Gyllenhaal smirks in Ambulance

Welcome back! Each week (or most weeks), our writers assemble in this space to provide you with recommendations of things we think you’ll enjoy watching, listening to, reading, or otherwise consuming with your sense organs. This week we’ve got a pair of films for you: Paul recommends Rollerball (1975) and Hawk gives us the more recent Ambulance. Both sound like a good time.

Film Recommendation: Rollerball

Paul Keelan: Rollerball is a slippery, stylish, paranoid 70s thriller with a cool subversive energy. As protagonist Jonathan E., James Caan sports overgrown chest hair, bell-bottoms, and a glib smirk befit for a porno movie. His smarmy countenance, however, grows increasingly quizzical and jaded as he investigates the totalitarian powers invisibly pulling levers behind the scenes. As it turns out, the ultraviolent, futuristic roller-derby game he’s devoted his life to may not be all it seems. This newfound disillusionment is punctuated by a dreamy interlude involving a group of teammates and their svelte ladies shooting flares at a row of trees (while carousing at a swanky, swingers-style party). The surrealistic image of towering pines engulfed in flames unnervingly contrasts with the brutality in the roller rink—engendering a dual sense of ecological/corporate foreboding.

One gets the sense that destructive nihilism now runs amok in this dystopian world run by pernicious, mercenary bureaucrats. For the celebrity rollerball athletes and their bombshell arm dressings, daily life has become a space of ludic anarchy—whether on skates or at ostentatiously pyromaniac parties. Why not revel in capricious indiscretions if the game and system are manipulated? After all, bludgeoning bodies and igniting trees ablaze seem to serve as amenable palliatives when surrounded by a society structured around corporate depravity. Both antics at least offer visceral awe—the transient sublimity of instantaneous gratification.

Jonathan E. is the sole figure not caught up with such shenanigans. He’s staunchly concerned with his religious mission to stay head honcho in the league. This steadfastness makes him a true pariah—a roller-skating outlaw refusing to capitulate to deterministic dictums passed down by his capitalistic overseers. He embodies an outmoded relic—a pious personality who reveres the sport itself above the noise, the fame, the perks, and the money. He’s a man of unwavering reverence simply because he’s a man who remains obdurately and zealously loyal to his life’s enthralling vocation. This passion will ultimately propel him to war—waging a one-man rebellion and coup on live TV.

It’s telling that Jonathan E.’s triumph within the rink (as the last man standing after a bloody rollerball campaign) feels tainted with cynicism. His pyrrhic victory is drenched in blood, sweat, and dead comrades. And it likely only exacerbated the war machine—infuriating the big boss, Mr. Bartholomew (played brilliantly by John Houseman), who stands on the other end of the plexiglass, seething with hellish fury—a firestorm fomenting in his eyes. Mr. Bartholomew is clearly not the type to lay down arms. His despotic mind is already brainstorming a way to sabotage his new mortal enemy (Jonathon E.), whose fate now parallels the mythic downfall of Icarus—having recklessly defied his inborn limitations in the quest for glory.

The film’s unwillingness to settle this tension is intriguing. It leaves the suspense open-ended—literally rolling the credits with a resoundingly provocative close-up shot of Jonathan E. What do we think of this face—bidding for our sympathies? What do we read in his eyes—equally weary and menacing. What do we think his next move will be? He has undoubtedly won the hearts of the public—proving heroic individualism can out-maneuver a league teeming with monetized adversaries (both on and off the court). But he’s also committed the errant sin of undermining his company—disobeying the oligarchy’s game-fixing agenda, protocol, and policy. Thus, for survival, he must now operate as a rogue agent. He must make his boldest play yet—finding asylum and weaponizing his celebrity, immediately.

Sports movies don’t get much more brazenly weird and cynically savvy than Rollerball. It’s truly an underrepresented gem.

Another Film Recommendation: Ambulance

Hawk Ripjaw: When it comes to action movies it’s hard to find one that just gets down and dirty with the thrills without the extra fluff and bloat. Ambulance is that movie. Yeah, the guy’s wife has cancer or something. Whatever, just get to the part where the cars blow up. And boy, do they blow up.

Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs money for his wife’s medical care. His adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) ropes him into a bank robbery, which quickly goes south, pushing the brothers to take an EMT named Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) hostage with a wounded cop, resulting in a chase across Los Angeles. That’s the plot.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite actors, and he is tailor-made for the wide-eyed, absolutely deranged Danny. He enjoys solid chemistry with the more grounded Abdul-Mateen II and Gonzalez, and the movie deftly keeps the pace going as the chase goes on and tensions between the three escalate.

Michael Bay’s style is a whole vibe and that can easily not work for a movie. The last two Transformers were absolutely atrocious. 6 Underground was tolerable for a few minutes. I just don’t like the frenetic personality that Bay brings to a lot of his movies. But sometimes it hits, and when it does, it hits just right. The Rock might be the best example of when Bay fires on all cylinders, and Ambulance is right up there with it.

Ambulance feels like one of those lean old-school action movies like Speed, where the entire plot is focused on this one event, and things keep escalating to complicate that one event. There aren’t really any ancillary plot events to make things more complicated; everything feeds directly into that ambulance and the desperate people inside it. Cam is constantly working to save the wounded officer, which leads to some terrifically gruesome scenes where she has to dig around in his abdomen as the ambulance races through the streets of LA. It’s thrilling to see how the movie continues to ramp up the action.

It’s also really funny. The movie leans hard into the action movie tropes and oftentimes even calls them out verbally with some of the corny dialogue. Cliches abound, but the movie is never not in on the joke. “Tell my wife I love her!” says Will. Would Cam say literally anything besides “Tell her yourself” as she carries him to safety? It is best viewed with a group, with plenty of snacks and a willingness to erupt with glee at every ludicrous turn.

At the end of the day, Ambulance is a lean, exciting action flick that won’t stick with you very long, but is a hell of a good time while you’re watching it. Its modest budget ($40 million) isn’t something you see much of anymore, but it’s a reminder that you don’t have to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into an action movie to make it worthwhile. It’s the best movie Michael Bay has made in years, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

Written by TV Obsessive

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *