Here’s a consumer tip for anyone who’s comparison shopping for a spooky road movie: “Joy Ride” gets a lot more mileage from its attention grabbing premise than the recent “Jeepers Creepers” got from a similarly unsettling high concept. With helmer John Dahl (“Rounders”) at the wheel, this hot-wired, white-knuckle thriller maneuvers more smoothly, and avoids plot holes more consistently, as it steadily gains momentum while speeding through familiar territory. Fox release could score as a sleeper, or at least post above-average numbers, when it cruises into theatrical showrooms Oct. 5. Down the road, expect hell-on-wheels homevid biz.
Paul Walker, who favored street-illegal racing machines in “The Fast and the Furious,” plays Lewis Thomas, a cash-strapped college student who has to settle for a less-than-cherry ’71 Chrysler Newport. Lewis buys the vehicle near the end of his freshman year at Berkeley so he can take the long way home with Venna (Leelee Sobieski), his long-time platonic buddy. He hopes they finally can become more than just “good friends” during a drive from the U. of Colorado, where she’s enrolled, to their old New Jersey neighborhood.
But before he reaches Boulder, Lewis must take a detour: Fuller (Paul Zahn), his ne’er-do-well older brother, is being held on drunk-and-disorderly charges in a Salt Lake City jail. Lewis posts bail for Fuller, then tries to ditch his black-sheep sibling before picking up Venna. But Fuller — lacking anything better to do, and playfully eager to yank his brother’s chain — insists on going along for the ride. A chronic hellraiser and mischief-maker, Fuller considers it his filial duty to loosen up the uptight Lewis.During a stop along the way, Fuller impulsively purchases a bargain-priced Citizens Band radio, a retro curio he describes as “like a prehistoric Internet.” Back on the road, he goads Lewis into adopting a woman’s voice to flirt with lonely (and, presumably, horny) truckers over the CB airwaves.
Trouble starts when Lewis connects with a big-rig driver who uses the handle “Rusty Nail.” At Fuller’s urging, Lewis offers to meet Rusty Nail at a roadside motel, where the trucker is misdirected to the room of a nasty-tempered, middle-aged male guest. This way, Fuller figures, they can play practical jokes on two dumb lugs at the same time.
But no one is laughing when, the next morning, the cops inform Lewis and Fuller that the nasty-tempered guest has been found, horribly maimed and almost dead, on a nearby stretch of highway.
Smoothly gliding into the kind of neo-noir genre set-up that served him so well in “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction,” director Dahl takes his time while turning the screws throughout the first half-hour or so of “Joy Ride.” Suspense is skillfully sustained during an especially creepy sequence that has Lewis and Fuller trying to eavesdrop on the nasty neighbor in the room next door. They think they hear something possibly unpleasant — and maybe a great deal worse than that — after Rusty Nail arrives for what he expects to be a late-night rendezvous with a sexy babe.
But then there’s a long, almost unbearably extended, silence. Much like the siblings, the audience strains to hear something … anything. Dahl makes a major impact with the power of suggestion.
Unfortunately for the foolhardy practical jokers, Rusty Nail doesn’t flee too far from the scene of the crime. Indeed, the trucker makes it very clear through CB communications that he knows who the brothers are, where they’re going and what they’re driving to get there.
Things take a nasty turn at a service station, cuing Dahl to spring a predictable yet effectively goosebumpy trick on the audience. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The cat-and-mice game continues long after the brothers reach Boulder and take off again with Venna. The rest of the journey involves a nightmarish dash through a moonlit cornfield, a humiliating joke at a roadside restaurant and a tense climax at yet another seedy motel.
With a wink at Richard Matheson’s screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,” and a tip of the hat to the Jonathan Mostow-Sam Montgomery scenario for Mostow’s “Breakdown,” scripters Clay Tarver and co-producer J.J. Abrams have concocted a not-quite-airtight but mostly efficient blueprint for a slick scare machine. The pace is brisk enough, and the lead players charismatic enough, to distract from a few nagging lapses in logic and continuity. (Filmmakers would probably prefer you not ask too many questions about how Rusty Nail knows so much about Venna’s cute roommate.)
Pic even manages to get away with falling back on the moldy cliche of an open-ended, sequel-friendly finale; “Joy Ride” does not transcend genre conventions so much as make the most of them.
Walker registers a more personable impression here than in “Fast and Furious,” and fully convinces as a desperate young man who drives himself to extremes in order to survive. Sobieski once again demonstrates her canny instincts for acting naturally and persuasively while ignoring how much the camera loves her. Zahn wisely infuses Fuller with an inherent likability, which enables the character to retain some measure of audience sympathy even when he’s doing dumb and/or dangerous things.
Dahl soft-pedals the graphic violence, relying on just a few brief glimpses of bloody carnage to reinforce the overall impression that, at any moment, all hell might break loose. Razor-sharp cutting by a five-man editing team, moody lensing by Jeffrey Jur and button-pushing music cues by composer Marco Beltrami enhance the suspense.
Dahl’s understatement extends to his rendering of the villain, Rusty Nail, whose face is never seen, and whose raspy voice — think Ted Levine with a bad head cold — isn’t identified in the credits.For the record: “Joy Ride” was filmed nearly two years ago, and slated to open under its original title — “Squelch” — in the fall of 2000.