While the domination of cinema screens by comic book adaptations may be a recent phenomena, comics themselves have always had an influence upon cinema in both direct and indirect ways. This series of reviews will look at the films which are not based on comics, but are comic books in spirit.
I have to be honest: when I hit upon the idea of reviewing the 1990 thriller The Ambulance , it wasn’t really because I expected much out of the film. I figured that the fact that the main character Josh (Eric Roberts) is a Marvel Comics artist was only going to be treated as a minor point in the film, an odd quirk to make him a little different than your typical main protagonist. The film’s premise – in which Josh stumbles across a conspiracy in which diabetics are picked up by a mysterious ambulance on the streets of New York, only to disappear – didn’t seem to leave a ton of room for Josh’s profession to play much of a role in the narrative.
I should have expected a bit more from the inclusion of comics in the narrative of The Ambulance, however, given the writer and director behind the film: Larry Cohen. Cohen is a filmmaker with an extensive history of working in culturally and politically satirical exploitation films, and while Josh’s job as a comic illustrator has little bearing on the plot of The Ambulance, Cohen includes the medium in the film to clue the audience into how to read the film the film as a whole. Rather than a gritty, paranoid thriller, The Ambulance is a pulpy, larger than life thriller in the mold of the classic EC Comics, enabling Cohen to express a distrust of the medical establishment – and authorities in general, I might add – in a less than subtle manner, as well as offering viewers some grizzly fun house thrills.
The most indicative element of the film’s comic book influence is the titular ambulance. Instead of a modern ambulance, the vehicle used in the film in an old-style model, complete with stylistic flourishes, such as green neon lighting. The use of such a vehicle of course is the first of many absurdities involved with the master plan of the film’s villains – after all, who isn’t going to notice a clearly out of place ambulance running about on the street pulling some of the crazy stunts it does? – but it gives the vehicle a sense of character and menace, particularly as shot by Cohen and director of photography Jacques Haitkin.
This stylization applies to the characters of the film as well. Instead of striving of complex characterization and any sense of reality, each character is written and directed in an arch, almost cartoonish manner, and the cast almost uniformly nails the tone. While the character of Josh is creepy in his obsession with a missing woman he has just met and appears to be slightly off balance, Eric Roberts does manage to bring a level of charm to the role. James Earl Jones gets to have the most fun as a police detective with a hatred for modern comics and comic book creators which borders on psychopathic, chewing up scenery and exiting the film in a manner which underscores the film’s comic book influence.
The scene stealer of the film however is Red Buttons as Elias, an old reporter who seems to have wandered straight out of the 1940s. Playing sidekick to Josh and comic relief in a portion of the film, Buttons dives right into his role with abandon, alternating between giving Roberts’ Josh grief or advice, as well as serving as the most extreme voice of paranoia regarding the health care system.
Not quite getting into the spirit of things is Megan Gallagher as police officer Malloy, though fault doesn’t really lie with Gallagher herself. Malloy is a thinly written character, which would be fine given how thin/absurd most of the characters in the film are, but the character lacks any distinctive traits to make her memorable. Indeed, Malloy briefly appears near the start of the film, and then disappears for a large portion of screen time before turning up again late in the film.
Of course, I couldn’t write about the cast without mentioning the man who brought my attention to this film in the first place: Stan Lee. Yes, that Stan Lee. In the film, he plays himself as the editor of Marvel Comics, which apparently is little more than a one room open office, and gets to have a few scenes where he interacts with Josh. For those used to Stan’s more exuberant personality will probably find him remarkably subdued here – at least, as subdued as Stan can be – though, as ever, Stan is given some fun lines to work with.
Funny enough, Marvel Comics’ presence in the film does speak to one of the film’s few major missteps. While Cohen clearly includes Marvel as an acknowledgement of the type of film he is making, it is clear that superhero comics are not his primary influence upon the film, but rather horror comics. Indeed, one of the running points of the film is just how odd Josh’s art is, that it serves as a window into the darker aspects of his character. However, Josh’s art is so bog standard that it is hard to take that notion seriously. Were this film made in the 1970s when Marvel was publishing Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night, Cohen might have been able to get away with this, but it is hard for me to buy that anyone could call late 1980s/early 1990s Marvel comics superhero art “dark” and “twisted.”
So is The Ambulance worth watching? Well, that depends. While I was down with the film’s pulpy 1990 charms, I expect that most audiences will not be as forgiving. I would recommend a rental at the very least, but the film is only available as a MOD disc from MGM, which at $19.99 is a tad bit expensive for a blind buy. My advice is to wait for a sale on the disc unless you are a hardcore fan of Cohen or Eric Roberts, both of which means you are probably more than familiar with how bad some of their respective work can be, which this film is thankfully not even close to.