Joy Ride (2001)

3 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Joy Ride” is a popcorn movie that doesn’t require a lot of intelligence—it’s just one of those thrillers that require a suspension of disbelief, has a consistent fast pace with a running time of 90 minutes, and is also a good deal of fun. To be sure, there are questions to ask about certain parts of the movie (and I’ll get to that later), the bottom line is that the makers of “Joy Ride” succeeded in making a preposterous, entertaining, adrenaline-filled thrill ride.

The movie starts out in a suitably plausibly manner. Nice-guy/college-student Lewis (Paul Walker) is going home for the summer, from California to New Jersey. His best friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski), whom he actually wants to be his girlfriend, goes to school in Boulder, Colorado. So, Lewis decides to buy a used car (a 1971 Chrysler Newport) and drive them both home. On the way, Lewis makes a stop to bail his incompetent older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) out of jail in Salt Lake City. Fuller has a knack for getting himself into trouble, so it becomes natural that the elements that follow in the plot can be traced back to him.

Fuller rides with Lewis on the way to Boulder. When regular small-talk doesn’t work between the two brothers, Fuller buys a CB radio (“it’s like a prehistoric Internet”) for entertainment on the road. Fuller talks Lewis into imitating a woman’s voice in the hopes of suckering some poor trucker in for a joke. With the handle of Candy Cane, Lewis is able to set up a date with a certain Rusty Nail. That night, Fuller and Lewis set it up so that Rusty Nail believes that “Candy Cane” is at the motel they’re staying at, in Room 17, where an obnoxious customer stays. Fuller and Lewis are in the room next door, listening in on their prank going underway…and then they hear some weird noises, almost like thudding and choking.

It’s then that the practical joke takes a dark turn. The man in the room is murdered (with his jaw ripped off). Fuller and Lewis are thrown out of town, but they have something bigger to worry about—a stalking, taunting, psychotic trucker hot on their tail. They barely survive an encounter, thinking it’s over. But by the time they pick up Venna, the terror is far from over.

One of the elements that show “Joy Ride’s” effectiveness is the fact that the villain is never seen. We see his big-ass truck approaching; we hear his gravelly voice (which only Ted Levine can provide) on the CB; and he constantly sets up ominous trick after trick to terrorize Fuller, Lewis, and Venna. If that sounds like Steven Spielberg’s 1971 thriller “Duel,” which was also about a character being chased by a faceless truck driver, you’d be half-right. While both movies feature an ominous-looking, huge truck whose driver is never seen, they’re different in tone. “Duel” was a psychological thriller that featured the insanity that ensued as the hero became more and more frightened as he kept running from the villain. “Joy Ride” doesn’t go for that—it’s just mainly a chase picture with nothing specifically deep to be found.

But there’s not anything wrong with that if the movie is entertaining, which it is. There are some good tense moments as well, including that motel-room scene I mentioned where Lewis and Fuller start to worry about what they hear, and the realization that someone is following them the next day (Rusty Nail says on the CB, “You really oughta get your taillight fixed.”).

What also helps make the movie work are convincing characters to follow, and the three principal actors do game jobs. Steve Zahn, in particular, is quite excellent here, playing the ne’er-do-well who keeps getting into trouble, and whose “harmless little prank” gets himself, his brother, and his girlfriend into danger. While he plays the role relatively straight, Zahn displays effective comic relief here as well. He’s goofy, but credibly so. (My favorite bit is when he tries to imitate the noises he heard that night to a questioning cop.) Paul Walker is likeable as nice-guy Lewis—he’s just so clean that it’s easy to let any stupid thing he does slide. Leelee Sobieski is charming as always.

Now, as for the questions I’m sure people would ask about the logic of the movie. 1) How does Rusty Nail know everything the heroes are going to do? 2) Are there other truckers helping him out? Is that he’s able to pull off most of what he does? 3) There’s a sequence in which he chases the heroes through a cornfield; why do the heroes run straight through a row? Rusty Nail can’t turn his big semi around, so why don’t the heroes just run the opposite way? 4) By the way, if Rusty Nail has been following them all this time, how did his large truck go unnoticed?

But because of the pacing and the capable execution of the story, it’s easy to conclude that the unlikeliest situations are expected.

Everything leads to a well-crafted climactic final act that is both effective and breathlessly chilling.

Perhaps it’s not best to ask questions that “Joy Ride” raises a few times. It’s just a fun, scary thriller. It delivers what it promises—nothing more, nothing less. And I was glad to go along for the ride.

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