2004’s mega-action-moto-orgy is best known for being a commercial bust, but there’s more to this filmic pariah than shitty writing and the worst soundtrack in history.
It was meant to be The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles, Warner Brothers’ late entry into the exciting world of dumbfuck Xtreme street racing flicks. Instead it bears the ugly distinction of being the sole cause for Director Joseph Kahn’s proverbial black-balling from Hollywood. Mainstream critics have summarily dismissed the film as cinema garbage, typically referring to it only in cautionary tales or clever punchlines.
Since when does any of that determine if it’s worth a shit?
Torque is perhaps the most misunderstood movie of the last decade. It is the cretinous, slippery bastard child of a major Hollywood studio and a subversive genius director. I’m sure Warner Bros. thought they were simply hiring a music video director with a slick visual style and a knack for narrative to head up the project. Kahn’s chops are more than adequate to pull off this type of film, but he wasn’t content to make something just adequate.
The thing that critics in 2004 failed to recognize is that Torque is a fully self aware joke film. Kahn hated The Fast and the Furious, so he leapfrogged on Rob Cohen’s brand of roided-up, brain-damaged action, doing everything faster and furiouser and more frequently (Working Title for FF7?). It excels at this , but he was unfortunately satirizing a culture with zero ability to laugh at itself. The joke missed big, but Kahn made the picture he wanted to make, and he stands by it.
Torque’s script is fucking retarded, its characters all perfect cliches. Protagonist Ford leads a multi-ethnic team of color-coded motorcycle Power Rangers who look cool and don’t do much of consequence. Their outfits all celebrate their different cultural backgrounds! Cute! The Reapers are the black motorcycle gang and they’re pretty well respected cuz they have Ice Cube AND Fredro Starr (Slam! Duh Duh Duh!). We’re told they’re dangerous, but honestly, they mostly seem nice. But the Hellions are bad news. They’re the Harley guy crew. They have terrible haircuts and never wear helmets or sleeves. They almost never smile and are for real mean drug dealers. Everyone hates everyone for some reason.
Kahn presents each gang in the slick, opulent visual style of a music video, and everyone is so fucking good looking it’s ridiculous. Archetypes are set in stone. The Hellions wear permanent sneers, The Reapers are basically a mobile West Side Connection video, and Ford’s crew are soldiers of virtue and good times. The cast seems to be in on the joke, because they ham it the fuck up. Also, Adam Scott (!) plays an unbelievable dick FBI guy. He’s funny in that Adam Scott way, breathing actual comedy into what are really awful lines. I love that guy.
Torque excels at parodying street racing bullshit – but it is equally proficient as a pure action film. The riding shots are complex and ambitious, and the stunts/effects are beyond over the top. Ice Cube (on a motorcycle) chases Ford (on a motorcycle) up to, on to, across, and off the top of a moving train; there’s a MotoKarate girl fight; a 400 mile per hour backflip in rush hour traffic; chase scenes through pretty much every type of terrain; and every manner of eating shit on two wheels. It’s high test bullshit – and stellar, highly technical action film making.
I think Torque’s fatal flaw at the box office was that it lacked the recognizable star power to draw crowds from outside the FF sphere. That, and critics love a hog pile. Kahn has paid the price for this, but he wears his scarlet T defiantly. In 2011, he released a brilliant film called Detention (see this movie – now on Netflix), which he bankrolled himself. The guy is really, really good. If there’s any kind of cosmic justice in this existence, he’ll get the opportunity to make a lot more films.
So see Torque! It’s the flawed genesis of Kahn’s bright feature film future.
– justin midnight