Joy Ride

While driving home cross country, brothers Fuller (Steve Zahn) and Lewis (Paul Walker) pass the miles away by having a little fun on their CB radio. Older brother Fuller, whom Lewis has just bailed out of a Salt Lake City jail for drunk driving, goads Lewis into pretending to be a woman.

Much to their amusement and amazement, they hook a trucker nicknamed Rusty Nail, who wants to meet the mystery woman. To get even with a rude business traveler, Fuller sends Rusty Nail to his room as a joke.

Fun and games turn into a weekend of horror when the businessman is torn apart, and the brothers find themselves being pursued by a madman in “Joy Ride.”

Efficiently directed by John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “Kill Me Again”) from a thrifty screenplay by J.J. Abrams and Chris Moore, “Joy Ride” starts off slow but accelerates into a full-throttle nail- biter. Even though “Joy Ride” seems overly familiar, the director and writers manage to put their own stamp on it.

The genre has been road-tested numerous times, from Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” to Richard Franklin’s “Road Games.” Tales of ordinary travelers being pursued by relentless killers in 18- wheel death machines have gotten plenty of mileage in Hollywood.

It’s not the story, but how it’s executed. Like in “Duel,” the writers of “Joy Ride” never reveal the identity of the killer. He’s represented by his deep, ominous voice and equally threatening truck. We see a hand here, a small glimpse of his back there, but not enough for us to help the characters trapped in his web.

It’s a wise move, because to fully appreciate “Joy Ride,” logic must take a back seat. The moment you stop and try to make sense out of any of this is the moment the film ceases to be fun. By keeping the killer’s identity a mystery, we’re put the in same predicament as the characters.

Like in “Road Games” (a deliciously dark thriller starring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis) and “Hitcher,” starring Rutger Hauer, the killer in “Joy Ride” is as vicious as he is invisible. When he strikes, he strikes fear into the hearts of the characters and audience alike. His first act of violence, a jaw dropping lesson in civility, sets the tone for the rest of the film. We not only realize that this guy is crazy, but is capable of anything.

Most of “Joy Ride” is delivered in short hand, so it’s important that we immediately connect with the brothers. Steve Zahn, a very funny fellow with amazing range, and Paul Walker, extremely likeable, make the job easy. From the first moment we meet Lewis, we know his heart is in the right place.

Not so with Fuller, a bit of a rascal who has no problem finding trouble. Fuller and Lewis start off as types, but it doesn’t take long before Zahn and Walker have us eating out of their hands. Zahn is so likeable that even when Fuller makes bad choices, we still support him.

Walker convincingly draws us into his character’s dilemma. Once the film shifts into gear, we have no problem believing these two are brothers. That’s why it’s easy to buy into the premise that Lewis would let Fuller pressure him into committing the CB radio hoax. He does it out of loyalty, even though he hasn’t seen or spoken to his brother in years.

The engaging Leelee Sobieski (“Never Been Kissed”) is strong as Venna, the comely coed Lewis has his eyes on and has agreed to give a ride home to. Sobieski has a great scene with Fuller, who tries to use alcohol to loosen her up. Fuller thinks he’s in like Flynn, but Venna is always one step ahead of his advances..

Abrams and Moore’s script is more like a road map. It’s one close call and chase after another, never stopping long enough to explain itself. There are plot holes big enough to drive a semi through, but director Dahl keeps things moving so fast it’s hard to catch your breath.

Dahl, a modern master of film noir, knows how to tighten the thumb screws. Once Dahl establishes the premise, he drives it home with a vengeance, using noise and light to create an underlying current of suspense. He constantly catches us off guard, either through traditional jolts (trucks appearing out of nowhere), or by keeping us completely in the dark.

While the brothers wait in an adjoining hotel room to appreciate the handiwork of their initial joke, Dahl uses the sound of falling rain to make the long stretches of silence unbearable. Are we hearing a violent act or is it the rhythm of the rain?

“Joy Ride” looks sharp, thanks to Jeffrey Jur’s vivid cinematography that blends garish neon with industrial strength shadows, and Marco Beltrami’s thumping score that suggests things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Even though we’ve seen this sort of film before, “Joy Ride” has that new car smell. It is efficient and effective, and gets great mileage on and off the highway.


Joy Ride accelerates into a full-throttle thriller


Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski. Directed by John Dahl. Rated R. 96 Minutes.


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