Since the 1950s, the major Hollywood studios and the independent producers have essentially swapped roles. The indie sector, which used to make exploitation flicks for the youth market, is responsible for most of today's prestigious, grown-up films while Hollywood, which used to make the award-winning adult stuff, now specialises in big budget versions of what Samuel Z Arkoff used to churn out on the cheap. The closest equivalent of Arkoff today is Neal H Moritz, the prolific and very successful producer of hits like XXX, SWAT and I Know What You Did Last Summer, among many, many others. His films are gimmicky, trend-following, formula-based and aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator in the Friday night popcorn crowd. In true exploitation style, his latest project, Torque borrows the blueprint for one of his previous smashes, The Fast And The Furious and duplicates it, replacing cars with motorbikes. The script gamely acknowledges this, slipping in some sly jokes about the 2001 blockbuster. One character repeats Vin Diesel's line, "I live my life a quarter-mile at a time", only to be told, "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard".
The plot comes straight out of an old B-western. It's pure cowboy pulp right down to the characters' names. Cary Ford (Martin Henderson from The Ring and Britney's Toxic video) is an innocent man on the run. A motorcycle mechanic by trade and a biker by lifestyle, he had to leave California six months ago because the FBI believed he was in cahoots with evil gang leader Henry James (Matt Schulze). In truth, he'd just agreed to look after a couple of bikes for James, not suspecting that their petrol tanks were packed with narcotics. Now Ford has come back for the girl he left behind, fellow mechanic Shane (Monet Mazur) but Henry James is still after him to get back his bikes and their valuable contents. When Ford won't hand them over, James murders the brother of rival gang leader Trey (Ice Cube) and frames him for it. Hunted by the cops, the FBI and both gangs, Ford must elude his pursuers and prove his innocence.
Clocking in at a lean 84 minutes, Torque is basically a series of motorbike chases punctuated by people fighting and pointing guns at each other and ladies showing PG-13-friendly skin, all set to a loud soundtrack of teen-friendly rock and hip hop. It's not aimed at people with low attention spans, it's aimed at people who have no attention spans at all. Music video director Joseph Kahn has studied the works of Michael Bay (Bad Boys) and McG (Charlie's Angels) and gone one step further. And it must be said that on its chosen, extremely dumb level, Torque works pretty well. You're paying to see exciting bike action and you get it, some of it done by stuntmen (a biker and car driver changing places at high speed) and some by computers (two bikes hopping onto a moving train). Only towards the end do the CGI guys let the side down. The climax, a chase through downtown LA is done almost entirely digitally and it's a hopeless mess.
This is not exactly what you'd call an actor's film but while Martin Henderson and Monet Mazur are bland, forgettable heroes, Ice Cube and Matt Schulze do at least seem to appreciate what kind of nonsense they're appearing in and they ham it up appropriately, acting as if they're competing in a snarling contest. Adam Scott has fun as an FBI agent who dresses like a 1980s new waver and, playing Schulze's girlfriend, Jaime Pressly (from Not Another Teen Movie) creates the most memorably slutty bad girl you'll ever see outside of porn. She has a way of lounging on a car bonnet which looks positively obscene. Also good for a few sick laughs are the yuppie couple who try to hang out with the evil biker gang. It's this kind of twisted humour which helps make Torque fun crap instead of crap crap. For all its sins and its cynical origins, it may just make it onto my 2004 list of guilty pleasures.