Is cult movie status defined by a film or its fanbase? Is it a stand-alone genre, or can any film attain cult status under a particular set of circumstances? The Internet has made it remarkably easier for film lovers to re-discover and re-evaluate films that were not given their fair due in decades previous. Some of these cult film candidates were thought lost, some were unceremoniously shelved, but many were unappreciated upon release. The best cult films embody the zeitgeist of a particular culture: The more pungent the culture, the more indelible the film.
In the early 2000s, PepsiCo was developing a beverage to complement Taco Bell’s, let’s say, unique flavor profile. That beverage became known as Mountain Dew Baja Blast. What does this have to do with film? Well, let’s just say that if this beverage was theoretically poured over select facets of Bush II-era pop culture and allowed to compress over the years and fossilize like a piece of amber, the perfectly crystallized artifact inside would be 2004’s Torque.
Torque is the brainchild of music video director Joseph Kahn, most recently of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video, and producer Neal H. Moritz of the Fast and the Furious franchise—though this movie pointedly abandons cars in favor of motorcycles (primarily of the “crotch rocket” variety). When our hero Cory Ford (played by Martin Henderson) has the nerve to show his face around his old stomping grounds after refusing to be the fall guy in a drug deal gone wrong, he is soon framed for murder-by-bikechain at a “steam and flame factory” party and forced to go on the lam once more. This time he has the help of his old crew and his tough-as-nails girlfriend Shane. An FBI agent (Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott in government-sanctioned ska slacks) and two rival biker gangs (one of which is lead by Ice Cube) are in hot pursuit. Cameos by Dane Cook, Christina Milian, and Jaime Pressly are era-appropriate delights, but the film’s raison d’etre is a series of unashamedly outlandish set pieces that reaches critical mass in a motorcycle showdown atop a moving high-speed train.
With the straight-forward plot mechanics of a classic western and meticulously story-boarded camerawork, the film showcases a splintered version of the American mythos where vehicles are seen as a novelty (an obvious nod to producer Moritz’s other projects), and Peter Levy’s bright and clear cinematography may have appeared out of step with the seedy green-tinge of most of his contemporaries. But like any great action film, Torque’s secret weapon is its editing: a runtime of eighty-four minutes puts it in good company with many 1970s Grindhouse favorites.
Two years before the bonkers universe of Neveldine and Taylor’s Crank and half a decade before The Fast and the Furious found its footing, Torque asked: What would result if the cinematic grammar of a film was composed exclusively of the hackneyed vocabulary of beer commercials, glib one-liners, video games, glaring product placement, and TRL-era music videos—many of which the director Joseph Kahn actually made? Kahn may have articulated it best when he described his intentions for Torque as “a dumb film for smart people.” Two years later, Idiocracy took the same low-brow imagery but settled for making an artless, misanthropic film which would have fit snugly (and smugly) in the very future it predicted. As prescient as Idiocracy has become of late, it remains unwatchable because it didn’t attempt to thoughtfully reconstruct the ubiquity of consumerism, corporate capitalism, and toxic masculinity into the platonic ideal of gratuitous entertainment. Modern viewers should consider giving Torque as least as much credence as more recent phenonema, like Spring Breakers or Richard Prince’s Instagram series.
Upon its release, audiences and critics dismissed Torque for a variety of reasons, and at first glance, Torque may appear an easy target for jokes about a subculture built on “Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wings” Doritos, but it’s also an absurdist anomaly of pure genre filmmaking. In the niche-saturated-subreddit world we live in, it’s hard to fathom that Torque is still that rarest of all things: a cult film that has yet to find its cult.