It’s not too fast, not too furious — and, for the most part, not too stupid. “Torque” is a spectacularly trashy and aggressively flashy motorcycle melodrama in which computer-enhanced action scenes, unbound by gravity or logic, are choreographed, photographed and edited to resemble video-game stratagems. Scattered between the set pieces, however, are pointed suggestions of self-mockery that do much to redeem the frenzied enterprise. Mix of tongue-in-cheeky humor and vroom-and-boom spectacle may fuel a brief but profitable spin through megaplexes, followed by high performance on the homevid racetrack.
Freshman feature helmer Joseph Kahn, yet another music-video veteran who measures shots in nanoseconds, sets over-the-top tone in pre-titles sequence, as leather-clad biker Cary Ford (Martin Henderson of “The Ring”) out-races two hot rodders on a California desert highway, then pummels the dumb lugs when they foolishly attack our hero outside a roadside diner.
Shortly afterward, buddies Dalton (Jay Thompson) and Val (Will Yun Lee) join Ford for a hard ride to a motorcycle rally. Along the way, however, they’re briefly delayed by a nasty encounter with badass Trey Wallace (Ice Cube), his jumpy brother Junior (Fredo Starr) and assorted other members of the Reapers, Wallace’s outlaw biker gang.
Credit Kahn for narrative economy: Within the first few minutes, he effectively intros all the genres — Western, road movie, blaxploitation, gang-war story, biker melodrama — “Torque” will ransack for cliches and archetypes.
Matt Johnson’s screenplay is little more than a perfunctory checklist of mandatory plot devices. The storyline, such as it is, has something to with Shane (Monet Mazur), Ford’s beautiful mechanic girlfriend, and Henry (Matt Schulze), leader of a sleazy bike gang. (Aud knows they are sleazy because their leathers are much dirtier than those worn by Ford or the Reapers.)
Six months earlier, Henry asked Ford to store two motorcycles in Shane’s garage. Unfortunately, Ford soon discovered, the bikes had crystal meth stored in the gas tanks. So Ford hid the bikes and fled to Thailand, in the hope of protecting Shane from possible arrest as a co-conspirator.
Now Ford is back, wanting to reconnect with his sweetie. But Henry — who vividly recalls Willem Dafoe’s wild-eyed bad boy in Walter Hill’s “Streets of Fire” (1984) — is still around and very determined to retrieve his property.
Henry murders Junior and frames Ford, hoping that Ford will spill the beans about where he stashed the bikes to avoid certain retribution by an enraged Trey. Soon Ford, Dalton, Val and Shane are racing through the desert, hotly pursued by the Reapers, two FBI agents (Adam Scott, Justina Machado) and hundreds, maybe thousands, of state troopers, deputy sheriffs and, quite possibly, National Guard reservists.
Neal H. Moritz, producer of “The Fast and the Furious” and its sequel, clearly intends to make lightning strike thrice with this latest high-octane extravaganza. Even so, he allows Kahn and Johnson to score a few laughs at the expense of the “F&F” franchise, especially when Ford echoes one of Vin Diesel’s signature lines (“I live my life a quarter-mile at a time!”) and Shane responds: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!”
Ice Cube adds to the in-joke quotient by working into the dialogue the unprintable title of a notorious rap song he famously performed with NWA. And the FBI agents amusingly played by Scott and Machado have a very funny moment when they’re forced to take a reality check before a high-speed pursuit.
The characters are so thin that they are entirely defined by the actors who play them. Henderson’s patchwork performance — a little Brad Pitt here, a lot of Kurt Russell there — just barely generates a rooting interest in Ford. Ice Cube muscles his way through the action on automatic pilot, letting his surly glare do most of the acting for him, while Mazur relies on a sexy smile and some lithesome body language. Standout among the supporting players is Jaime Pressly, if only because she’s so ineffably stunning as a body-pierced, goth-punk biker chick.
Stunt work and special effects are intended as the main attractions in “Torque,” but even the more attention-grabbing scenes are too obviously faked to build suspense, and too confusingly cut to sustain continuity. Late in the action, Ford boards a super-duper motorcycle — specifically, a limited-edition, state-of-the-art dream machine known as Y2K — and roars along at a blurry speed usually achieved only by time travelers in sci-fi thrillers. Here and elsewhere, however, the on-screen imagery is a good deal less persuasive than visuals available on a Play Station 2.