Joy Ride (2001)

Director: John Dahl

Starring: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski

Released right smack in the middle of two of the least productive decades in horror (the satirical, homage-filled 1990’s and the regurgitated remakes of the 2000’s), “Joy Ride” chose to be an homage. Co-writer J.J. Abrams has since made his love for the films of Steven Spielberg crystal clear, in particular with 2011’s “Super 8.” The script for “Joy Ride” has much in common with Spielberg’s first feature film, 1971’s “Duel.” In that film, a man played by Dennis Weaver is mercilessly stalked by a tanker truck for reasons which only the truck’s unseen driver is aware. Had “Joy Ride” carried its homage to “Duel” through to a similar end, it might not have to be filed under “could have been great.”

Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) embarks on a road trip from UC Berkley to the University of Colorado where he hopes to inspire feelings of romance from childhood friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) by driving her home for summer break. To this end, Lewis purchases a 1971 Chrysler Newport, hoping to make the trip as fun as possible. Lewis’s plans hit a bit of a snag when his mother calls to ask that he stop in Salt Lake City, Utah to bail out his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) from jail. Naturally, once Lewis is there, Fuller invites himself along for the road trip. Just for kicks, Fuller buys a CB radio for the car at a truck stop. Using a hillbilly accent, Fuller plays around with various truck drivers. He then bullies Lewis into pranking one of them, who identifies himself as “Rusty Nail” (voice of Ted Levine). Adopting one of the worst excuses for a feminine voice you’ll ever hear, Lewis assumes the persona of a woman who goes by the handle “Candy Cane.”

Taking the gag too far, Lewis and Fuller lure Rusty to the motel where they are staying for the night, telling him to meet “Candy Cane” in room 17, next door to the room in which they are actually staying. The occupant of room 17, a surly businessman with whom Fuller had words as he was checking in, unwittingly becomes part of the brothers’ elaborate ruse. When Rusty knocks on the door to room 18, Lewis and Fuller eavsdrop on their angry confrontation. What they don’t discover until the next morning when police arrive is just how violently the altercation ended. With the businessman mutilated and hospitalized, the brothers are not arrested but are urged to leave the state of Wyoming and never come back. They agree, and consider the matter resolved. Rusty Nail does not, continuing to haunt them on the CB radio, ultimately causing paranoia when he points out a busted tail light on their car, a fact Lewis had been made aware of earlier. A case of mistaken identity with an ice truck driver leads to the reveal of Rusty Nail’s tanker truck, and the real chase is on.

About halfway through “Joy Ride,” the brothers finally meet up with Venna. Allowing only a brief period for the potential of a love triangle to emerge, the rest of the film focuses mainly on the trio trying to avoid capture/death at the hands of Rusty Nail. Particularly harrowing is the scene in which the friends are forced to abandon their car, run through and hide in a corn field. It is after this, when Rusty Nail captures Venna and the brothers are forced to risk their lives to rescue her, that the film falters.

Not that I don’t appreciate Leelee Sobieski’s inclusion on some levels, but adding her to the mix at the midway point and subsequently giving her almost nothing constructive to do from then on truly damages the tone set by the film’s first half. Both the plot and its intended homage to “Duel” might have been better served if we’d simply stayed with Paul Walker and Steve Zahn. Yet even this has its problems. Through the childish and immature actions which led to their predicament, Lewis and Fuller are not entirely as sympathetic as they could be. Rusty Nail himself could have remained just a scary voice on the radio, negating the need for any one-on-one confrontations and allowing for his truck to remain the source of all physical threats had it not been for the “damsel in distress” part of the movie. Instead, what you have is one part “Duel,” one part “The Hitcher.” For that to really work you need an equivalent to Rutger Hauer here, and there is none to be found.

Despite my complaints, I still managed to enjoy myself while watching “Joy Ride.” It creates tension early and (mostly) sustains it from there, and doesn’t rely on a large body count to get the job done. As I’m not a fan of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, I can safely say that “Joy Ride” is my favorite movie in the career of the dearly departed Paul Walker. It’s better than most horror movies from the early 2000’s have the reputation of being, yet isn’t quite good enough to warrant classic status.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Good review, Chuck!

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