Joy Ride

Reviewed By EricDSnider
Posted 09/29/01 09:49:19

"A thriller in which none of the characters is stupid? Hmm. How odd."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It is a joy to watch “Joy Ride,” a thriller that appears fresh not by breaking the rules but by actually following them. Since most thrillers ignore matters of logic, character and pacing, “Joy Ride” is an innovation because it doesn’t.

It’s about a college student named Lewis (Paul Walker) who, while on a road trip, becomes reacquainted with his estranged brother Fuller (Steve Zahn). The two haven’t had much to do with each other in recent years, but they get along well enough. Fuller is promising to clean himself up and be a little more responsible.

He takes a step or two backward, though, when he installs a CB radio -- “a prehistoric Internet” -- in Lewis’ car and convinces Lewis to help him play pranks with it. Lewis adopts a falsetto voice and tells a gruff-sounding trucker called “Rusty Nail” that he’s a gorgeous woman named Candy Cane who is waiting to meet him at a Wyoming motel.

They give him the number of the room next to theirs so they can peer through the window at the hilarity when he shows up and is met by someone who has no idea what’s going on. Alas, Rusty Nail nearly kills the guy. Next thing you know, he’s calling for Candy Cane on the radio and hunting down the guys responsible for embarrassing him. Let the deadly games of cat-and-mouse begin!

The most noticeable thing about “Joy Ride” is its sense of humor: It has one, and it’s not ironic. Casting Steve Zahn in a lead role was good thinking, but the script (by Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams) is full of funny lines anyway, and none of them is about scary movies. No self-referential, post-”Scream” dialogue about how characters in movies always act, or how the bad guys are never as dead as you think they are. The humor is here because the characters are like real people, who crack jokes sometimes and get scared other times.

While most horror films are fueled by a protagonist doing something stupid that no real person would ever do, Fuller and Lewis get into their situation here rather innocently. Their subsequent behavior is logical, too, which makes the whole thing infinitely scarier. This isn’t a nightmare that could only happen to movie morons. This is something that could happen to smart people like us, too!

Let us also remember this lesson: The less you see of the bad guy, the more frightening he is. This movie knows that.

Steve Zahn’s wit and nice-guy energy go without saying, and Paul Walker delivers a likable performance as his brother. Leelee Sobieski remains winsome and pleasant, too, as Lewis’ semi-platonic female friend. The trio are a fine ensemble.

Director John Dahl (”Rounders”) maneuvers a snappy U-turn halfway through, where the crisis apparently is averted, but we know better. And then there are a few scenes that would seem irrelevant, except that they’re so much fun. When the action picks up again, we’re not surprised, but we weren’t tapping our feet impatiently, either.

The film’s only downfall is its last 10 seconds. Unsatisfied with a crackerjack movie and a solid conclusion, they had to throw in an unoriginal “twist” that hurts more than it helps. A movie this clever and fun should have had more confidence in itself. Aside from those final 10 seconds, it’s up there among the most enjoyable thrillers in recent memory.

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