Prior to watching Larry Cohen’s 1990 picture The Ambulance, I had seen most of his films, though none as recent as this one. I was worried that, by this time, the director would have lost his taste for the bizarre quirks which distinguish his work. I needn’t have worried, as this film is an absolute blast.
It starts with a mulletted Eric Roberts trying to make small talk with Janine Turner on a busy New York street. You can tell she enjoys the attention but isn’t receptive. Suddenly, she collapses on the sidewalk and an ambulance picks her up—albeit, suspiciously faster than help could possibly arrive. Also, this vehicle is of the much older variety, which is closer to the car in Ghostbusters than anything else.
It is that kind of quirk which is a litmus test for whether this movie is right for you. On one hand, the movie requires the vehicle to be something distinctive; otherwise, it wouldn’t stand out as something for our protagonist to watch out for. On the other hand, wouldn’t such a vehicle be too distinctive? It would be something the authorities would notice right away. Also, it seems to me some people might wonder why somebody is being picked up by an ambulance a couple of decades out-of-date. Then again, it is my understanding New Yorkers try to turn a blind eye to most things.
The only information Roberts gets from Turner before she is whisked away is her first name and that she is a diabetic. When he asks the attendants where they are taking her, they tell him the destination is St. Francis Hospital. It is no surprise when Roberts doesn’t find her there, nor at any other hospital.
Instead, she has been taken to a secret facility where she is strapped down in a hospital bed. An effectively creepy guy wearing surgical gloves explains how Turner is going to be subjected to experimental surgery that will either cure her diabetes or kill her.
She has an interesting exchange with him: “You’re going to kill me aren’t you?” “Yes, I will eventually. But you’ll be in perfect health when you die.” He also likes to stroke her face with his glove-clad hands, saying, “I just like to touch human skin through a surgical glove, that’s all.” Why do I have the nagging suspicion this guy would be an incel nowadays?
Roberts gradually enlists the help of a detective played by James Earl Jones and a cop played by Megan Gallagher. Jones initially suspects Roberts of being delusional or a homicidal maniac. The actor is obviously having a great time and chews the scenery with gusto. In an odd touch at adding character, he also chews a great deal of gum. In a scene where he is in hot pursuit of the ambulance, I believe we see four sequential shots of him putting an additional piece of gum in his mouth.
Gallagher, on the other hand, will become the love interest. Still, it is a far from thankless role, as she has a great personality, is intelligent and is more than capable of defending herself.
Stan Lee appears in an odd cameo as Roberts’s boss at Marvel Comics. I wonder if we are seeing the real Marvel studio at the time, as whatever we are seeing is a location shoot. I expect their operation now entails more than just the dozen or so artist tables we see here.
Red Buttons makes a welcome appearance in a fairly significant role as a fellow patient when Roberts is picked up by a real ambulance. Playing a retired New York Post reporter, he provides a considerable amount of comic relief.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, coming within in a hair’s width of saying I loved it. I can’t say I would recommend it to everybody, as the amount of enjoyment one will likely get from it is heavily dependent upon how far one is willing to suspend disbelief and accept some intentionally hammy performances.
Dir: Larry Cohen
Starring Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Megan Gallagher, Red Buttons, Janine Turner
Watched on Starpix