January 15, 2004 1:22pm EST
As Torque opens we learn that biker Cary Ford (Martin Henderson) skipped town six months before without any explanation leaving behind bewildered friends and a heartbroken girlfriend Shane (Monet Mazur) who owns a local bike shop. "Heard you were in Indochina " people ask when they see Ford who came back to "make things right." Before his disappearing act Ford hid away a collection of motorcycles left in Shane's shop that belong to Henry (Matt Schulze) a drug dealer and leader of the Hellions biker gang who wants his merchandise back--not surprising since he had stashed about $1 million worth of crystal meth in the gas tanks. Henry devises a plan to get the goods: He brutally kills a rival gang leader's younger brother and frames Ford for the murder then promises an exchange--he'll get Ford off the hook if Ford tells him where the bikes are. This doesn't fly with our protagonist who sees the drug-spiked bikes as his only insurance against Henry killing him outright. Now Ford has to prove his innocence while staying a step ahead of the gangs--and the cops--who are hot on his trail. This ridiculous film fails to answer glaring questions such as why Ford split in the first place and why he stashed the bikes for six months. But the nonsensical storyline is accompanied by even lamer dialogue: The only thing worse than the constant references to Indochina (does anyone still use that term?) is Ford's correction that he was actually in Thailand.
If anything positive can be said about Torque it's that the bad guys in the cast manage to go out of their way to overdo their characters delivering the memorably bad dialogue with the utmost passion and conviction. As rival gang leader Trey Ice Cube never laughs or cracks a smile; he snarls his way through the entire film. But the best performance in terms of facial expressions has to be Jaime Pressly's China (no not Indochina)--Henry's woman. China doesn't say a word until halfway through the film but Pressly maximizes her character's screen presence by making her sadistically raunchy: She seductively licks her pierced vixen-red lips every time violence breaks out be it a fight or better yet a murder. When she finally utters a line (something like "You messed with the wrong chick") during a wheelie showdown with Shane we at least know she means it. In contrast heroes Mazur and Henderson are positively bland. Mazur's portrayal of Shane is a straight-up tough-but-pretty girl who skids into one scene after another on her crotch rocket asking "Need a ride?" and although Henderson's stringy longhaired Ford looks the part of a biker boy the actor doesn't give his character any quirky attributes the way Ice Cube and Pressly do--he isn't having fun in the role and it shows. But the cast's biggest obstacle--besides again the awful dialogue--is the absurd leather getups they're forced to wear.
Prolific music video helmer Joseph Kahn makes his directorial debut with Torque and his roots are showing--the film looks like a barrage of stylish music videos strung together. When Ford's pal is getting it on with a biker skank in a hotel room for example N.E.R.D.'s "Lap Dance" song blares in the background ("Oooh baby you want me? Well you can get this lap dance here for free..."). But the soundtrack has nothing on Torque's dialogue and lines such as "You got 'til sundown to bring back my bikes" will have audiences laughing rather than shaking in their boots. Scribe Matt Johnson's attempted jibe at The Fast and the Furious is absolutely pathetic; in one scene Ford repeats Vin Diesel's infamous "I live my life a quarter mile at a time " and Shane sneers something about that being the dumbest line she's ever heard. Right because this dialogue is so intelligent it's earned the right to laugh at others'. It's a shame Kahn didn't look to Furious helmer Rob Cohen for tips about directing a film about fast things on wheels instead of making fun--he could have learned how to make a cheesy film entertaining. Instead Kahn delivers an action pic whose CGI effects more closely resemble a video game than reality and whose organizing principle is the three-minute music video which doesn't lend itself to fleshed out storylines or interesting characters.
Julia Stiles is Sara a serious high schooler whose dreams of becoming a professional ballerina died with her mother in a car accident. She's shipped off from New England to live with her sloppy jazz-musician dad in Chicago's South Side and starts at a school where she's one of only a few white kids. She learns how to adapt by getting into the hip-hop dance scene with the help of smart popular Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) the coolest cat at the local club who teaches ill-at-ease Sara how to shake her booty right. Romance blooms and of course everyone else at school has a problem with it - would there be a movie here if they didn't?
First of all whoever came up with the notion that Julia Stiles could ever pass for a ballerina probably lost his executive head -- she practically dwarfs Thomas. That said a lesser actress wouldn't have carried off this silly clichéd story nearly as well. She's engagingly awkward and innocent believable as the small-town girl thrown into an alien environment. Derek is likable warm and tender as he not only inspires Sara's hip-hop dance moves but also the pursuit of her dreams. He really struggles with the push-pull between his loyalty to his gang-banger friends and his own dreams of going Ivy League to become a doctor. The charismatic relationship Derek and Sara share is the best thing about this film and almost - uh that's almost - helps you overlook ridiculous lines of dialogue like this: Derek tells Sara he likes kids and she asks if he's fathered any yet.
Three words: "Oh come on!" Last Dance plays like an episode of Fame complete with every stereotype in the book thrown in and the requisite big let's-overcome-the-odds audition scene at the end. Of course Sara's a white outsider who's resented by her black classmates. Derek's brassy sister Chenille (the engaging Kerry Washington) is of course a single mom. Of course Derek and Chenille's mom is in jail for "doing what women do for money when they need drugs " as Chenille puts it. And of course this being the South Side and all Derek's best childhood buddy is a gang-banging homeboy named Malakai (Fredro Starr) who'd rather do drive-bys than homework. We've never seen this before have we? And if you believe that's Stiles dancing in her big audition you probably thought Milli Vanilli deserved their Grammy.