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.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.