The Daft And The Spurious
Warning: feeble comedic conceit ahead.
The literary bio-pic has come into fashion somewhat, following the successes of Sylvia, Iris, and (ahem) Shakespeare In Love - so much so that's getting tricky to make each new film in this subgenre distinctive. Joseph Kahn has hit upon a novel solution to this particular problem with his new movie Torque.
Now I had thought Henry James (author of, amongst other things, The Bostonians, The Turn of the Screw, and Daisy Miller) to be a quiet and bookish chap who lived around the turn of the last century. But Kahn's film about him reveals that he was actually the drug-dealing leader of a bad-ass biker gang living in contemporary California (played by that bellweather of knuckle-headed action film-making, Matt Schulze). He spends so much time zooming around on his bike, having people murdered and generally being a nuisance that it's a wonder The Portrait of a Lady ever got written.
In a further twist Henry James is neither the main character nor the hero of his own film. This honour goes to Ford (Martin Henderson, a good-looking actor with a dull name), who's some sort of bike mechanic. Ford arrives back in California after hiding out in Thailand for six months to avoid the irate novelist and the FBI (Ford has hidden some of Henry James' drugs), but his enemy has a long memory - 'Henry James and his posse won't be as pleased to see you as we are!' says one of Ford's identikit buddies.
But Ford cares not, for he has only returned to win back the hand of the lovely Shane (Monet Mazur, an extremely good-looking actor with a very silly name), who's also some sort of bike mechanic, only one who fills out her leathers in a much more interesting way. Ford's plans for romance go a bit awry when Henry James frames him for the murder of the little brother of local gang leader Trey (Ice Cube, whose performance is basically an impersonation of Mr T c.1984). Then everyone chases each other around on bikes for about an hour.
Now I have to confess that about twenty minutes into Torque I was all but prepared to write it off as a chunk of utterly vacuous garbage. I'm not entirely convinced that it isn't, but it did suddenly occur to me that it does bear more than a passing resemblence to the sort of stylised urban action movies Walter Hill was knocking out in the late seventies (The Warriors, etc) of which I am on record as being a fan. It's nowhere near the same league, of course, substituting gloss and flash and sheer noise for the intensity and conviction of Hill's work, but it is sort of shamefully enjoyable nevertheless.
The other main influence on Torque is obviously The Fast And The Furious. Now this is a movie I didn't actually catch (yes, I know it has Michelle Rodriguez in it, but it was released before she came into my life) but I know enough about it to spot the gags at its expense here - the pre-credits sequence has Ford busting up a very TFATF-ish four-wheeled road race and kicking the asses of the two contemptible jerks involved, mainly just to establish his heroic hard-man credentials. 'I live my life a quarter of a mile at a time,' Ford proclaims later on. 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,' replies Shane scornfully - all good nudge-nudge wink-wink fun, but the trash-talking seems a bit disingenuous given that Torque is being advertised as 'From the makers of The Fast And The Furious'!
The acting is mostly as grimly indifferent as one would expect of this kind of film. Describing the cast as eclectic is probably stretching a point, for all that (in addition to Cube) it includes ex-BBC costume drama star Max Beesley and Justina Machado from Six Feet Under. Wisely, no-one takes things too seriously - Adam Scott gives a particularly arch performance as one of the bad guys, and it's only quite late on that it becomes clear he's just ripping off Johnny Depp in Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
The action scenes are quite variable. The actual flesh-and-bone stuntwork is rather impressive, particularly the climactic full-throttle crotch-rocket joust between Monet Mazur and Jaime Pressly. This is probably the most preposterously entertaining thing I've seen at the cinema all year, but then again I did enjoy it on a number of levels. The CGI stuff is considerably less impressive - the computer in question appears to have been a Commodore 64 - which is a serious problem given that most of the major stunt sequences have a severe credibility gap to begin with. (I'm thinking particularly of the climax, which revolves around a 200mph chase through downtown LA.) Then again, the plot isn't remotely believeable, so it seems a little unfair to expect anything else of the special effects.
Torque isn't a movie for the ages. It probably only barely qualifies as a movie for this week. But it is dumb fun, self-mocking and openly ridiculous - and somehow very likeable as a result. There are certainly more jokes and leather trousers here than you'll find in The Wings of the Dove, which is sometimes all you want from a movie. Rubbish, but in a good way.