“Everything changes when you hit the big one-oh. Your legs start to go, candy doesn’t taste as good anymore…”
– Bart Simpson, “The Simpsons”
If I were a smarter man, a more educated man, or simply inclined to look it up on Wikipedia (I’m not), I might be able to explain to why humanity is so obsessed with the deca system. Top 10 lists dominate the internet, high schoolers only reunite every decade, and Patton Oswalt says that after age 21 you’re only supposed to get a birthday party when your age ends with a zero.
I’m powerless to fight this towering behemoth of numerical fixation, so screw it, let’s take a look at what happened ten years ago every single week on Ten Years Later. This series is going to focus on movies of course, because that’s what we do, and this week’s subject is actually near and dear to my heart, because ten years ago this week – in fact, to the day – one of the most intelligently dumb actions film of the modern era popped a wheelie into our hearts. The movie is called Torque.
Powersliding through the wake of the vehicular fetish franchise The Fast and the Furious, which was already on its second installment (yes, it’s that old), Torque was a flagrant attempt to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and was understandably dismissed as a meager knockoff on only half the wheels. Torque was a motorcycle-centric rendition of the Fast and Furious subgenre, complete with bromantic gangs, maddeningly implausible stunts and macho catch phrases thinly disguised as dialogue. At least, until the following lines of dialogue took the piss out of all the grandstanding clichés.
Torque tells the rather simple yet somehow needlessly complicated story of Cary Ford, a motorcycling fugitive played by The Ring’s Martin Henderson, whose non-threatening good looks and consistently friendly dialogue delivery seemed likely to make him the next big thing back in the early 2000s. (It didn’t happen.)
Ford returns to America after six months in Thailand to settle an old score with the villainous biker Henry James (The Fast and the Furious alumni Matt Schulze), and to reconnect with his jilted girlfriend Shane (Monet Mazur). Only Ford knows the location of Henry James’ crystal meth – he was just holding it for a friend, honest! – but FBI Agent Jay McPherson (future “Parks and Recreation” star Adam Scott) thinks Ford is the real criminal mastermind. Ford promises to give Henry James his drugs back, secretly planning to turn his enemy and the meth over to McPherson and clear his own good name.
That’s not good enough for Henry James, so he frames Ford again, this time for the murder of Junior (Fredro Starr), the brother of a rival biker gang leader named Trey Wallace (Ice Cube). It’s a terrible idea of course: if the newly reinvigorated FBI manhunt lands Ford in jail, then Henry James loses his drugs, and if Trey kills Ford, then Henry James still loses all his drugs. Henry is not a smart villain. But his girlfriend China (Jaime Pressly) is the only “witness” to the murder, and Henry James promises she’ll recant her testimony if Ford gives up the meth.
Of course this is all just an elaborate excuse to force Ford, Shane and their cronies Dalton (Jay Hernandez) and Val (Will Yun Lee) to run from anyone and everyone, and perform one implausible stunt after another to evade capture long enough to prove Ford’s innocence. But if that was all there was to Torque, it would indeed be the vacuous Fast and the Furious rip-off everyone thought it was, simply devoid of all the melodramatic character development that made the original franchise so endearing in the first place.
But no one should come to Torque for the story. Torque is not what Torque is about, Torque is about how Torque is about it. Torque was the feature film directorial debut of prolific music video and commercial director Joseph Kahn, whose credits included The Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” and Moby’s “We Are All Made of Stars.” Kahn applied his short attention span theatricality to Torque, giving the film an epinephrine vitality that ramps up the pacing when the heroes’ adrenaline kicks in, and overtly frames all the action in between with clever forced angles, preposterous hero shots and practically sexual images of vehicles in motion, always calling direct attention to the superficiality of the film’s action movie machismo trappings.
Unlike its fast and, admittedly, occasionally furious predecessor, Torque doesn’t pretend to be anything but an exercise in style and flourish, embracing the superficiality and ironically freeing Khan – working from a witty screenplay by Matt Johnson (Into the Blue) – to comment on the contemporary tropes of the action genre. It’s not always subtle. Ford quotes The Fast and the Furious directly, stating unironically that “I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” to which Shane responds, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” No, Torque does a better job satirizing the genre with its little asides, like Agent McPherson yelling, “Let’s go!” when he learns of Ford’s new location, only to realize that he can’t leave yet because he’s at a filling station and hasn’t yet paid for his gas.
Khan even manages to insert subtle commentary in the most overtly nonsensical action sequences. In the final motorcycle kung fu fight between Shane and China, Khan frames the heroine and villainess in front of giant Pepsi and Mountain Dew advertisements, what looks like maybe 50 yards apart. Over the course of the lengthy action sequence, Shane chases China at high speeds on her bike for quite a while, but when the sequence concludes, Shane has only made it as far the Mountain Dew sign. The geography of the scene expanded to comical lengths to accommodate the needs of the action, but they didn’t go anywhere that whole time, as exposed by Khan when he revisits the same, clearly delineated visual geographic markers.
Khan repeatedly defuses his broadest beats and action-heavy moments, at least after the adrenaline finally runs out. An absurd sequence where Trey is chasing Ford through the desert culminates in Ford jumping his bike onto a speeding train, driving on the roof and then through the passenger cars like he’s done it a hundred times before. The typical action movie would simply move on from there, accepting the ludicrous goings on as par for the course, but in Torque Ford tells Shane all about it, himself impressed that things got so far out of hand. “Amazing what you can do when you have no choice.” Amazing indeed. One might even go so far as to say it’s completely implausible.
Torque doesn’t make any sweeping pronouncements about the validity of its genre, so it’s not surprising that the film’s slick takedown of its own existence either went over the heads of most audiences, or that perhaps the film simply came across as slightly ashamed of itself. Certainly Torque was not successful or popular enough – or unsuccessful and iconoclastic enough – to become a mission statement for future films one way or the other. Ten years later, it remains a curious enigma: a film that operates perfectly as the vapid drivel it actively satirizes, but refuses to one-up the subject of that satire on anything more than a surface level.
Its digs at the Fast and the Furious films and the rest of their ilk are tacky and simplistic (“What is it about driving cars that makes you all such assholes?”), and its choice to undermine the incidental and arguably trivial details of action movie filmmaking rather than the more meaningful clichés that speak volumes about the filmmakers and audiences who never question them – clichés like sexism, racism, masculine privilege, the list goes on – is disappointing, particularly when Khan is clearly talented enough to make astute observations and incorporate his commentary entertainingly into a film.
Torque is a satire of superficiality that is itself, perhaps ironically or perhaps a little too cleverly, too superficial to be taken seriously as a satire. The cast does a good job of humanizing their cartoonish roles but the film appears to have been made with bemused intellect rather than genuine emotion, unless you’re willing to count “obvious glee.” Torque is too smart to be a dumb piece of entertainment, and a little too dumb to be a work of subversive genius. It is neither here nor there, unless here is a Pepsi advertisement and there shills for Mountain Dew. It is only Torque, and Torque deserves its reputation as a bizarre, misunderstood motion picture. Misunderstood, perhaps, even by its own self.