and the rise of the American Furious Movement
TORQUE is the most spectacularly ridiculous movie I’ve seen in a while, making even 2 FAST, 2 FURIOUS seem pretty reasonable and down to earth. The movie opens with a shot of a tortoise standing between two street race cars at a starting line. The cars take off down a dusty road at impossible speeds. Suddenly, reflected in one car’s rear-view mirror, is some dude on a motorcycle. He has a hard time passing the cars but once he does he does a big wheelie and leaves them in the dust. A street sign spins uncontrollably in the wake of the motorcycle creating the illusion that it says “CARS SUCK.” And from there we cut to the opening credits.
You hear that, FAST AND THE FURIOUS? The gauntlet has been thrown down. Cars suck, motorcycles rule. Or own. Or whatever it’s called now. In case FAST AND THE FURIOUS came into the movie late though, because it was out in the lobby text messaging somebody, there is a part later on where the hero says, “I live life a quarter mile at a time,” and his girlfriend says, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” These movies may start some kind of deadly motorcycles vs. cars feud, but they’re both from the same producer, Neal H. Moritz.
The hero is named Ford, but Ice Cube (as Trey, the leader of Inglewood’s black motorcycle gang The Reapers) prefers to call him “the white boy” or “Dawson’s Creek.” I’m not sure what they were thinking having the blandest possible white man as the hero and asking the audience to root against Ice Cube, but that’s what they did. Martin Henderson, the Kiwi former soap star who plays Ford, makes Paul Walker seem like fuckin Al Pacino. He wears a Ramones t-shirt as some sort of a vague hint that he has a personality. Cube does all right, scowling and being pissed off all the time, though he doesn’t seem as tough when he’s wearing a leather biker jacket with sponsorship logos on it. He does have a dog named Dojo who he refers to by name alot.
The real villain though is Henry James. Unless I missed something big, this is not the same Henry James who wrote The Turn of the Screw. This one is some racist white asshole with crazily shaved hair who leads a biker gang called The Hellions. He’s played by Matt Schulze, the same asshole who sold Steven Seagal’s penpal into white slavery in OUT OF REACH. He’s trying to get back two motorcycles filled with crystal meth that he loaned to Ford. Unfortunately the motorcycles don’t run in this condition. I was hoping the crystal meth in the gas tank would turn them into super powered motorcycles, because this is the kind of movie where that would fit in.
Stylistically TORQUE is the most in-your-face of all the FAST AND THE FURIOUS type movies so far, which is saying alot. It’s like a weird crossbreeding of Sergio Leone ripoff and Pepsi commercial, full of dramatic close-ups and wide shots, weird angles and POVs, and the highest amount of reflection shots I’ve ever seen. You’ll be amazed how many times Kahn chooses to shoot the scene reflected in a mirror, a watch, a muffler or a knife. They also have the same type of digital shots they did in FAST AND THE FURIOUS where the camera goes inside the car and shows the machinery, but in Kahn’s version the camera also goes through the internal organs of the drivers, coming out their brains. Also there’s a weird psychedelic touch where it comes out an exhaust pipe that also appears to be a human eye. (Kahn claims on the commentary track that he didn’t get the x-ray engine idea from FAST AND THE FURIOUS, but from a Volkswagen commercial done by the same guy who did the FX for this movie.)
Nothing in the movie is minimalistic. If there’s a conversation out in the middle of the desert, there’s gonna be about 50 windmills in the background. If the hero has to pull a Polaroid off the wall of a cafe, the entire wall is gonna be covered in Polaroids. If Ford faces off with the Reapers, their entire gang is going to surround him in a perfect circle. Everywhere the movie goes there are little gags or visual gimmicks: a bike tears through a puff of smoke, the wake of a bike causes a pedestrian’s skirt to blow up revealing her garters, a wall that a guy gets pinned against already has a “Yikes!” word balloon written next to his mouth, etc. When the bad guys have to meet, instead of going to some strip club or something they meet in the parking lot of a 99 cents store.
I say it’s like a Pepsi commercial because it’s so full of show-offy visuals and so empty of substance that it feels more like an ad than like a real movie. But while it SEEMS like a Pepsi commercial, it also happens to BE one. At one point Faison Love (in an apparently improvised line) asks a guy to get him a Diet Pepsi. Later, we see another character drinking Diet Pepsi. Near the climax there’s a great motorcycle duel between the two female leads, where they drive at each other and attempt to kung fu each other with their tires, as well as doing flips and jumping on top of each other and other impossible, awesome feats. The whole time they are doing this fight there is a giant wall with a Pepsi logo behind one character, and a Mountain Dew wall behind the other. According to the commentary track this was meant to be a joke where one had a Pepsi logo behind her and the other had a Coke logo, but they couldn’t get the rights to Coke. So it became a voluntary placement of enormous Pepsico logos.
In one chase, Ford and Trey both jump their motorcycles onto the top of a moving train. At first I thought this was dumb because after you’ve seen Michelle Yeoh do that for real in SUPERCOP you gotta wonder what the point is of a computer animated fake version. But then they take it to the next level when they treat the whole scene just like a foot chase on a train, even though they’re on motorcycles. Ford drops down between two cars, enters, and the chase continues INSIDE the train. Then they somehow manage to get back to the top of the train and jump off onto the tracks, continuing straight ahead FOLLOWED BY A SPEEDING TRAIN.
The action climax elevates the action to that of a super hero movie, with a motorcycle chase that is supposed to be 200mph and seems to be at least 3 times the speed of whatever the world record is for motorcycles. Apparently it’s a real motorcycle that uses a a jet engine but the chase is all digital and looks like how Superman would drive a motorcycle. The movie takes place in a world where there are jumps around in random places so thankfully there is a chance for Ford to do a flip in the middle of downtown L.A. In THE FRENCH CONNECTION or BULLIT you’re not gonna have the guy doing a flip in the middle of the chase. So you see, this is a pretty different type of a movie.
When director Rob Cohen made THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS in 2001, he tried to cash in on what he saw as an untapped trend of “underground street racing.” He probably thought it would connect not just because people liked Vin Diesel in the movie, but because there was some huge subculture of rich kids with expensive neon colored supercars who were dying to have their lifestyles validated on the big screen. What he achieved instead was a hit movie that spun-off an entire subgenre of flashy vehicle-related movies, and arguably even a movement. I will call it The Furious Movement. Like the French New Wave, they represent a youthful iconoclasm, but only in their filmatic style. They are not fighting against conservative values, as much as we might like them to. Instead they are validating the apathy of the empty-headed, materialistic dumbass cell phone moron generation they hope to sell tickets to. Young people who know their peers are dying in Iraq so they would like to watch an awesome shiny motorcycle doing a wheelie while a chick wiggles her ass around and the soundtrack goes boom-bip-CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.
Okay, so that sounds like an indictment of the Furious Movement, but actually I’m not sure most of the people watching are as stupid as some might imagine. However they were intended, they are always enjoyed on a tongue-in-cheek level that makes them worthwhile cinematic endeavours, in my opinion.
While the subject matter of the Furious Movement comes from Cohen’s movie, the style comes from another source: the red-headed music video director turned CHARLIE’S ANGELS auteur known only as McG. With CHARLIE’S ANGELS and especially its sequel FULL THROTTLE, McG created an over-the-top-silly pop culture smorgasbord crammed with show offy visual gimmicks, TV opening credits style montages, gravity and physics defying artificial stunts and visual references to pretty much every aspect of pop culture that has ever existed or ever will.
In addition to being the pioneer, McG is the wisest of the Furious directors. He’s the one that seems most conscious of what he’s doing, the most capable of getting his sense of humor across and the most in control of the mess he’s throwing on screen. He’s like a guy spinning plates in the middle of a tornado. Somehow he keeps those fuckers from falling off. It could be argued that he is an inspiration for the movement and not a full-fledged member, since the car and motorcycle stunts in his movies are incidental and not the whole reason for the “plot.” But next year he’s scheduled to release the toy car adaptation HOT WHEELS which I fully expect to be the 2001 or the GODFATHER of Furious films. We’ll see.
While I consider McG’s work the most respectable of the bunch, there’s something to be said for the arguably dumber, seemingly more serious, and definitely less competent vehicle-related movies. Cohen’s original FAST AND THE FURIOUS treats the subject seriously, and doesn’t seem to know how corny it is. John Singleton’s sequel, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, is a more representative example of the genre full of cars jumping off of bridges, high speed reverse driving on the freeway, reckless disregard for property and logic – Singleton even put hydraulics on the Universal Studios logo at the beginning. Justin Lin’s FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT takes a similar approach but puts it in Tokyo, filtering it with Japanese pop culture instead of American.
BIKER BOYZ is another movie obviously inspired by FAST AND THE FURIOUS, but it takes a more serious approach to bike gangs and is smarter than the title implies, with a real performance by Laurence Fishburne. CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE has a closer connection to the movement. It continues in the style of director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s earlier movies, but with an even more ridiculous plot and featuring a scene where DMX rides a stolen four-wheeler across rooftops while being chased by an entire team of professional motocross racers, in uniform.
TORQUE has elements of all these movies, with a sense of humor and style closer to the McG pictures but characters that fit into the FAST AND THE FURIOUS universe, with just a drop or two of THE WARRIORS. All these movies fantasize about a non-existent subculture as imagined by crazy marketing executives who haven’t spoken to anyone not wearing a tie in at least 15-20 years, but have seen them on TV. In Pepsi ads. In these movies all the races come together, they share the same ridiculous style of clothes and are willing to listen to each other’s crappy music. Just like in TOKYO DRIFT, a Kid Rock song shows up here. (Come on Neal Moritz, I know you own that shit and you’re trying to get your money’s worth, but there is a point where you have to realize that it would be more valuable to our culture to bury it in a vault and piss on it than to ever make an innocent human being have to hear it again.) Everybody listens to hip hop but Ice Cube and the Reapers also hang out at the same shitty rock club where everybody else hangs out. There are no boundaries, man.
I could understand why somebody might not understand my enthusiasm for TORQUE. It shares the same empty-brain, lack of humanity and consumerist obsessions that I rail against in, say, Michael Bay. But this Joseph Kahn (and his second unit director Gary Davis, who probaly deserves just as much credit) are not trying to make a serious action movie. And they’re not trying to make you take them seriously as filmatists. They’re deliberately pushing the conventions of action movies into utter ludicrousness to make you smile, and that I’m down with. I know everybody else hates McG so you probaly should ignore me on this. But I’m gonna challenge you anyway. If you watch the beginning of this movie, you will not be able to stop watching. I said CHARLIE’S ANGELS FULL THROTTLE was Jalapeno Cool Ranch Charlie’s Angels, well this is Code Red Fast and the Furious. It’s a smooth running 80 minutes of goofy, brightly colored zooming, flipping and exploding.
The lead character is completely boring and somehow it doesn’t matter a god damn bit because of the movie around him. If they managed to make this same movie with a great character in the lead like a Snake Plissken or a Blade or something, it would almost be too dangerous. I don’t know if I would be able to survive. I would be begging for parts 2-10. I would probaly cry at the end and have to go take a long walk along the waterfront to contemplate God and what He meant for us on this journey. And maybe stop for a Pepsi but I’d like to think I’m not that much of a sucker.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.