Jake expectations – how ‘Ambulance’ star Jake Gyllenhaal has becomes cinema’s most compelling actor

As he returns to cinema screens in the blockbuster heist thriller 'Ambulance', we look at the remarkable career of actor Jake Gyllenhaal

In association with Universal Pictures.

This Friday, Jake Gyllenhaal returns to screens in Michael Bay’s Ambulance, a thrill-a-minute movie about a man who needs money to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment and his career criminal adoptive brother, who convinces him that a multi-million dollar bank heist is the best solution.

It speaks volumes about Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent that on hearing of those two characters, it’s not immediately apparent which role would be his – because the actor, born in LA into a movie-making dynasty (sister Maggie Gyllenhaal is a celebrated actor, dad Stephen Gyllenhaal is a director and mum Naomi Foner is a screenwriter) has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile, most commanding actors. Actually – that’s him playing the criminal element, Danny, to Abdul Yahya Mateen II’s ex-serviceman hero, Will.

Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Ambulance, directed by Michael Bay

We first encountered Jake as original emo icon Donnie Darko, trailed by the rabbit costume-wearing mystery man Frank, in the gloom-core classic of the same name. Released in 2001, Donnie Darko captured something of the mood around the turn of the millennium – a time when, it’s easy to forget, there was genuine panic that planes might fall from the sky, power stations might explode and robot might turn on man thanks to the so-called Millennium Bug and, at the same, major global shifts saw Darko released into a changed world.

The mood was being reflected in darker cinema and angrier, angstier music – this was the time of Eminem, emo, Limp Bizkit and Donnie Darko’s own crushingly melancholic cover of ‘Mad World’ by Michael Andrews. Gyllenhaal’s starring role in the movie saw him navigate a dreamlike, blue-tinted world of confusion, followed relentlessly by the aforementioned Frank. It was a complicated movie for complicated times, but it was escapist too. Gyllenhaal’s Donnie was subject to forces beyond control, not quite feeling in control of his own destiny, in a bland suburbia that was both familiar and unsettling.

Gyllenhaal was the perfect star for the new decade – mysterious, intense and, most of all, ever-changing. And in the 20 years since, his massively varied characters have been united only by the depth of the performance. He does grieving fathers, brutal sporting heroes, psychopaths, soldiers, cowboys – and plays them all as complex people. He even does likeable super villains – he was Mysterio in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Whether they’ve been paranoid and cynical, like Nightcrawler’s ambulance-chaser Louis Bloom, compromised, like Jarhead’s Anthony Swofford, cold, like grieving father Tony Hastings in Nocturnal Animals or broodingly lovelorn, like Brokeback Mountain’s Jack Twist, Jake takes parts – over 50 of them so far – that are grieving, yearning, angsty, tormented, troubled and dangerous – and he makes us believe them. He’s a quintessential character chameleon.

As he passed the two decade mark in his on-screen career, Gyllenhaal’s performances are becoming more and more compelling. Take last year’s The Guilty, in which Gyllenhaal is an 911 operator dealing with a kidnapping that’s played out in real time, with Gyllenhaal on screen for practically the entire 90 minutes.

When an actor can create a thriller’s worth of drama practically on their own, you know they’ve tapped into the real stuff. Which brings us to Ambulance, a movie in which Gyllenhaal has fun playing the bad boy – until it all goes wrong, of course, and the pair end up in an ambulance, chased by the LAPD, while their paramedic hostage tries to keep the cop they accidentally shot alive. Abdul-Mateen II and Gyllenhaal struck up a roaring friendship on set, and – much like in many Michael Bay films – it shines through on screen. After two decades as a lone wolf, Gyllenhaal may have found his perfect on-screen partner.

Remembering Jake Gyllenhaal’s most iconic roles ever

Stronger (2017)

Gyllenhaal plays: Jeff Baumann, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing

The Jake factor: Ultimately a movie about personal triumph over adversity, Gyllenhaal shows us the pain as well as the positivity.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Gyllenhaal plays: Louis Bloom, a petty thief-turned-ambulance chasing news photographer

The Jake factor:: If you’ve ever wondered how paparazzi sleep at night, Gyllenhaal’s morally bankrupt antihero gives you the answer: they don’t.

Jarhead (2005)

Gyllenhaal plays: US Army sniper Anthony Swofford, fighting in Operation Desert Storm.

The Jake factor: Released the same year as Brokeback Mountain, for which Jake won a Bafta and an Oscar nomination, it’s remarkable how two of Gyllenhaal’s defining roles required him to tap into complex notions of masculinity – lofty stuff for a 24 or 25 year old.

The Guilty (2021)

Gyllenhaal plays: 911 dispatch operator Joe Baylor, whose efforts to save a kidnapped woman on the line trigger personal revelations. Even Gyllenhaal’s heroes have a pit of darkness at their core.

The Jake factor: Played out in real time, the inner conflict in Joe is the real story in this thriller.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Gyllenhaal plays: Cowboy Jack Twist, whose love for Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is a rodeo-no-no in the repressed American West.

The Jake factor: Brooding, yearning intensity found a new king in this one.

Prisoners (2013)

Gyllenhaal plays: Detective Loki, a Pennsylvania cop on the hunt for two kidnapped girls.

The Jake factor: When Jake Gyllenhaal’s detective looks for missing kids, he does so as if they were his own missing kids.

Demolition (2015)

Gyllenhaal plays: Widower Davis, whose grasp on reality loosens in this black comedy.

The Jake factor: Only Gyllenhaal would aim to find humanity in an unhinged investment banker.

Southpaw (2015)

Gyllenhaal plays: Billy “The Great” Hope, a tormented boxer.

The Jake factor: This one has everything – family trauma, conflicted masculinity and massive, sweaty, bloodied boxing blokes.

Don’t miss Ambulance, in cinemas now – book tickets.