"An intense joy ride, with the ridiculously entertaining Steve Zahn up front"
In the "road stalker" sub-genre of horror movies, a few titles stand out above the traffic. The Hitcher, Duel and Breakdown are three films in which vast expanses of American highways are the setting for some dark and frantic pursuits. You can add John Dahl's addictively entertaining Joy Ride to the list.Dahl's affinity for exposing the underbelly of seemingly innocuous locales was evident in films like The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, and his latest effort turns a lazy cross-country drive into a manic case of cat-and-mouse survival.
Paul Walker stars as Lewis, a college man all set to fly home for the holidays. When his longtime girl/friend expresses an interest in seeing him, Lewis promptly trades his airline ticket in for a classic roadster and hits the highway. After learning that his brother Fuller has been arrested in Salt Lake City, Lewis makes the detour and bails his estranged sibling out of jail.
Once they're back on the road, Lewis and Fuller engage in some rather cruel voice pranks over their CB radio. Let's just say they end up screwing with the wrong trucker. And that's an understatement. To divulge anything further would spoil a lot of the fun and make no mistake - Joy Rideis a lot of fun.
While the screenplay (by Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams) is just fresh and original enough to keep things moving, the real star of the movie is Dahl's camera. The endless stretches of highway and the seemingly harmless sound of radio static take on truly ominous tones, and the result is a movie that creeps you out in an enjoyable subtle fashion.
Several effective scenes of tension are littered throughout the film, most notable a sequence showing the brothers trying desperately to eavesdrop on a neighboring motel room. And without giving anything away at all, Joy Ride has a white-knuckled finale that will have you pulling at your clothes.
Aside from the perpetually hidden antagonist known as "Rusty Nail", Joy Ride is essentially a three-character piece. As Lewis, Paul Walker gives possibly his strongest performance to date. Without the unrealistic swagger necessary for movies like The Fast and the Furious and She's All That, Walker could prove to be a solid character actor. As the lovely Venna, Leelee Sobieski (Deep Impact, The Glass House) is quite good, although she only a few opportunities to prove it.
The performer who steals the entire film is the fantastic young actor Steve Zahn. Perhaps best known as "the funny one" from That Thing You Do!, Zahn has filled his resume with an unending string of quirky and entertaining performances in movies like Out of Sight, Suburbia and Happy, Texas. Zahn has such a sly and bemused delivery that he's simply a joy to watch.While Joy Ride certainly isn't going to win any awards for rampant originality, Dahl and his cast deserve praise for breathing some entertaining new life into a generally stale genre. Imagine 'Jeepers Creepers' with twice the smarts and half the silliness.