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With: Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski
Written by: Clay Tarver, J.J. Abrams
Directed by: John Dahl
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror and language
Running Time: 97
Date: 09/09/2001

Joy Ride (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jumping for 'Joy'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If director John Dahl had made movies in the 1930s and 40s, he would have been a trusted member of some studio's B-movie unit, like Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer, or Robert Siodmak. But today, like John Carpenter, his work seems lost in a sea of merchandizing and audience targeting. (The great title Squelch was changed to Joy Ride.) Nonetheless, he's an extremely reliable, extremely solid director of B-level suspense thrillers. And even if they don't always reach the highs of his early hit Red Rock West, you can pretty much always count on Dahl picture to be a white-knuckler.

Indeed, Dahl's work would still be going straight to video, like his first film Kill Me Again (1989) did, if San Francisco's Roxie Releasing had not rescued his second film Red Rock West and made a theatrical success out of it. Since then, Dahl has delivered a sturdy body of work with: The Last Seduction (1994), Unforgettable (1996), and Rounders (1998). Joy Ride happily joins this list. It's not the sharpest nail in the toolbox and not all the plot holes are properly sewn up, but Dahl duct-tapes and bail-wires the thing together and gets it at least as road worthy as the second hand car that kicks off the story.

Paul Walker stars as Lewis, a college student who trades in his plane ticket home for a cheap car in order to take a detour to visit the beautiful Venna (Leelee Sobieski), the object of his long-distance affections. On the way, he learns that his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has been arrested and is not too far away, so in a fit of goodwill, Lewis pops on over to pick him up. Dahl is blessed with the very talented actors Zahn and Sobieski, who give their all for the film. But leading man Paul Walker is a member of that army of square-jawed pretty boys in Hollywood right now who can all easily replace one another without anyone ever knowing the difference. His brand of nothingness doesn't particularly detract from the film, but it doesn't add anything either.

The brothers have not seen one another in years, and don't seem to have much in common. Fuller is a troublemaker while Lewis rides the straight-and-narrow. To this end, Fuller picks up a CB radio for the car and begins playing practical jokes on unsuspecting truckers. He arranges a meeting in a hotel room with one trucker and a fictional blonde babe named "Candy Cane" that results in a murder. The boys are shaken, but not as shaken as they get when they realize that this sinister and always unseen trucker knows who they are and can see them. (You've heard the scary "taillight" line on the TV ad by now.)

During the ensuing cross-country chase, Dahl and screenwriters Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams cook up several interesting set-pieces, including a deadly cornfield hide-and-seek, a would-be barroom brawl rescued by Steve Zahn's inherent zaniness, Zahn and Walker entering a diner in the buff, and Ms. Sobieski wearing very revealing tank tops. In another gripping scene, Fuller and Lewis's car is squished up against a tree by the evil truck driver's cab (calling to mind Steven Spielberg's 1971 feature debut, the excellent Duel).

But as it gets closer to the climax, Joy Ride takes increasingly huge leaps of faith in order to tie all its loose ends. The ending itself may leave some viewers cold. Whether or not the plot makes any sense though, Dahl keeps an iron death-grip on all of it, as if each scene were his last. I'm not usually one to bite my nails during a film, but I was certainly tensed up in my seat, knuckles turned white, dreading -- and breathlessly looking forward to -- whatever came next.

DVD Details: Top-shelf noir director John Dahl (Red Rock West) keeps a death-lock on the suspense and just plows right through any possible plot holes in this story of three young people on a road trip chased by an evil, murderous trucker. Fox's great DVD has two commentary tracks, lots of deleted scenes and alternate endings, and other stuff.

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