April 28, 2011
Eric Roberts has had an odd career that never reached its full potential. In the early 1980’s, he was part of an exciting generation of up and coming actors that included the likes of Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn and Gary Oldman, and delivered intense, powerful performances in films like Star 80 (1983) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). But then a combination of substance abuse problems and bad career choices soon found Roberts burning many bridges in Hollywood. He became a staple of direct-to-video dreck, popping up in the occasional mainstream film in a supporting role. Roberts ushered in the 1990’s with the cinematic oddity known as The Ambulance (1990), an offbeat thriller written and directed by cult film director Larry Cohen.
Josh Baker (Roberts) is a comic book artist infatuated with a beautiful woman named Cheryl (Turner) that he spots on the streets of New York City at the same time every day. In the middle of trying to sweet talk her into a date, she faints. An ambulance arrives and takes her away. After work, Josh goes to several hospitals in the area but they have no record of her. It turns out that she’s being held against her will at some secret facility that looks like it was lit right out Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). It turns out that Cheryl is being tormented by a creepy doctor (Braeden) who likes to touch human skin through surgical gloves. Meanwhile, Josh seeks help from Lieutenant Spencer (Jones) and so begins a series of crazy misadventures that rival Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) – albeit through Larry Cohen’s gonzo B-movie sensibilities.
Eric Roberts has dabbled in almost every film genre and played all kinds of roles but he’s known mostly for playing heavies. The Ambulance is a refreshing change of pace as he plays an idealistic romantic (who sports a spectacular mullet ‘do I might add). Josh is willing to go to great lengths to track down this mystery woman and Roberts portrays him as a genial motormouth type that Robert Downey Jr. has perfected over his career. It’s interesting because Roberts brings his customary intensity to the role but channels it in a way that is fascinating to watch. This character allows the actor to play a wide spectrum of emotions as he keeps up with the film’s wild, tonal shifts from romantic comedy to thriller. It is also fun to see him bounce off all sorts of oddball characters, like James Earl Jones’ angry police detective or Red Buttons’ sarcastic hospital patient or Eric Braeden’s creepy yet suave doctor. In a nice touch, Josh works at Marvel Comics (?!) and so we are treated to a cameo from Stan “The Man” Lee himself.
It is also interesting to see how Cohen slots a romantic character like Josh into this, at times, sinister thriller. And yet, the filmmaker subverts genre conventions with constant absurd flourishes that reflect Josh’s increasing (and warranted) paranoia. Cohen injects all sorts of inventive plot twists to keep us guessing just how The Ambulance is going to turn out. Will Josh find the girl of his dreams and rescue her from the evil doctor? Kudos to MGM for following Warner Bros. lead by starting to offer some of their more obscure gems available through their Manufacturing-On-Demand (MOD) Platform. You’re essentially getting a very high quality DVD-R and with this new edition, fans can finally throw away their pan-and-scan VHS copy.