"Torque" is a terrific action picture, fast-moving, studded with great stunts and smart enough not to take itself too seriously. Amid a plethora of high-minded, big-deal, year-end Oscar contenders, it offers a welcome contrast (and respite). The irony is that for pure cinematic artistry it arguably outdistances some of the more prestigious current offerings.

It is a very knowing venture, marking the feature debut of music video veteran Joseph Kahn and also representing its writer Matt Johnson's first produced script. It is as assured, energetic and fleet-footed as co-producer Neal H. Moritz's decidedly similar "The Fast and the Furious." The filmmakers understand that the plotting should never get in the way of the action, which should let up only long enough to ensure that the hero engages the audience in his quest. They also understand that the way to get away with the most outrageous macho posturing and antics is to present them with a sense of humor that may at times flirt with self-parody but never lapses into it.

The hero of "Torque," Ford, is played by New Zealander Martin Henderson, who is appropriately ruggedly handsome, ideal casting for an ace biker who rides an Aprilia Mille RSV and has carpe diem emblazoned on his jumpsuit. In a California desert community, the local drug kingpin, a hard case named Henry (Matt Schulze), hired Ford to work on two of his motorcycles. It seems not to have occurred to Henry, who is also the leader of the Hellions biker gang, that Ford might discover a cache of drugs hidden their tanks.

Ford decides his best move is to hide the bikes and head for a long sojourn in Thailand, hoping he can forget his girlfriend, Shane (Monet Mazur), the knockout proprietor of a the local biker shop. Self-reliant and hard-working, Shane is indeed memorable, and it's no wonder Ford, unable to forget her, is inevitably drawn back to town.

What a gantlet he has to run! He's menaced not only by the heartless Henry, who promptly frames Ford for the murder of the younger brother of Trey (Ice Cube), fearsome leader of the Reapers motorcycle gang, but also by a cocky FBI agent (Adam Scott), who wants to know about the whereabouts of Henry's two missing, drug-laden motorcycles. In short, Ford is quickly on the run, with Shane and his pals Dalton (Jay Hernandez) and Val (Will Yun Lee) inevitably enmeshed in his flight.

The filmmakers take every possible advantage of the chase plot they have deftly set in motion. There just happens to be a ramp by a railroad track up which Ford vrooms on his bike, leaping on top of a passing train with Trey in hot pursuit. What do the guys do when they reach the end of the last car? This is the just the beginning of the cascading biker exploits that place the emphasis on daring maneuvers rather than mindless violence, although to be sure nobody in this film walks away from a fight.

Kahn keeps a tight rein on the mayhem and his cast in focus, yet he allows them respite to kick back and relax. Essentially, Ford is an amiable guy, as are his sidekicks. (A subtle progressive touch: Ethnic pals are nothing new, but "Torque" allows Lee a stereotype-smashing, easygoing sexual swagger). Rounding out the key cast are Jaime Pressly as Henry's ultra-Goth lady, John Doe as the local sheriff and Justina Machado as the FBI agent's underestimated assistant.

"Torque" is a great-looking film, and Peter Levy's dynamic cinematography and Howard E. Smith and David Blackburn's crisp editing contribute mightily to its kinetic energy and overall visual panache. "Torque" is stylish, unpretentious fun.

'Torque'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, sexuality, language and drug references

Times guidelines: Too intense for children

Martin Henderson...Cary Ford

Ice Cube...Trey

Monet Mazur...Shane

Adam Scott...Agent Jay McPherson

Matt Schulze...Henry

A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Neal H. Moritz production. Director Joseph Kahn. Producers Neal H. Moritz and Brad Luff. Executive producers Michael Rachmil, Graham Burke and Bruce Berman. Screenplay by Matt Johnson. Cinematographer Peter Levy. Editors Howard E. Smith and David Blackburn. Visual effects supervisor Eric Durst. Music Trevor Rabin. Costumes Elisabetta Beraldo. Production designer Peter J. Hampton. Art director James Shanahan. Set decorator Rand Sagers.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

In general release.