October 26, 2021

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Why ‘Joy Ride’ Is Far More than a Straight to Video Franchise Starter

John Dahl’s “Joy Ride” is an A-grade B-movie deserving of reconsideration, not simply because it’s so good at what it is but because it showcases a little seen Paul Walker performance.

Walker stars as Lewis, a college student who is planning a long distance road trip to pick up his best friend and lifelong crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski) from her campus. On the way, Lewis reconnects with his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn), whose past is full of troubled detours.

While en route to pick up Venna, Fuller coerces Lewis to play with their CB radio (which Fuller touts as “a prehistoric internet”), where they attract the unwanted attention of a truck driver who goes by the name of “Rusty Nail” (voiced by Ted Levine). Lewis’ prank of leading on “Rusty Nail” and making him believe he’s an interested female motorist takes a frightening turn, as the unhappy and unrelenting truck driver goes after the brothers for revenge.

“Joy Ride” offers a touch of Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,” intertwining an early concept of a “catfish” scam and building to a junior variant on “Breakdown” or “The Vanishing” (though lacking the overall polish and staying power of both).

The opening scene of Lewis on the phone with Venna evokes the hook and mystery of the tale: two voices, separated by a great distance, tangling with one another as their words travel invisibly through the night sky. Not long afterward, Lewis will share a very different conversation over electronic means, and the distance between him and an unwanted presence will only grow closer over time.

Dahl became a cult figure with his respected neo-noirs, starting with the Val Kilmer-led “Kill Me Again” (1989), the Nicolas Cage/ Dennis Hopper starring “Red Rock West” (1993), and especially the Linda Fiorentino showcase, “The Last Seduction” (1994).

The latter film became controversial for its cable premiere, preventing it from Oscar consideration. Most saw Fiorentino’s performance as a Best Actress front runner. Dahl’s breakthrough was squandered on the uneven sci-fi noir, “Unforgettable” (1996), which stranded Fiorentino and Ray Liotta. The director’s comeback, the durable Mat Damon/ Edward Norton-starring poker drama, “Rounders” (1998) is easily to Texas Hold ‘Em what “Hoosiers” (1986) is to basketball.

“Joy Ride” was co-written and co-produced by none other than J.J. Abrams, back in his screenwriting days, when he was best known as the author of “Regarding Henry,” “Forever Young” and “Taking Care of Business” (Abrams’ television breakthrough with “Alias” would come soon thereafter).

The cast excels at creating the mounting tension and danger their characters find themselves in. Walker (who did “The Fast and the Furious” the same year) is especially likable here, as is Sobieski, though it’s Zahn, a reliably terrific actor in just about everything he’s done, who pulls off the tricky assignment in making Fuller both endearing and unreliable. Zahn’s casting helps offset what a knucklehead his character is.

Levine’s chilling vocal performance, an obvious cousin to her career defining turn in “The Silence of the Lambs,” gives a stomach-churning weight to his every scene.

“Joy Ride” was a minor hit in theaters but gained enough traction on DVD and videocassette to warrant two straight to video sequels: “Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead” (2008) and “Joy Ride 3: Roadkill” (2014), which I haven’t seen, for the same reason I’ve never sought out the follow ups to “The Howling” or “Children of the Corn,” either.

Typical of Dahl’s body of work, he has a great feel for the neo-noir setting, namely the rundown motels with glaring neon and long highways with danger lurking in the darkness. Cinematographer Jeffrey Jur (who also filmed “The Last Seduction” and “Dirty Dancing”) gives texture to this seedy world, though it’s the sound that’s especially excellent.

A scene where Lewis and Fuller eavesdrop on a motel room next door is made eerie and gripping by the sound design.

Dahl’s film stretches plausibility, particularly during an odd nude scene, in which Lewis and Fuller, enter a diner sans clothing. The moment comes and goes so quickly, it’s a wonder why the scene made the final cut. Yet, its worth noting that Sobieski has no nude scenes, while Zahn and Walker do, which is a true rarity.

The final scene feels like the alternate ending that it is and not a proper conclusion (the different endings on the film’s DVD aren’t all that different from one another, except in that they aren’t very good). It’s a shame that Dahl, Abrams and co-writer Clay Tarver didn’t know how to properly conclude their otherwise effective yarn.

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“Joy Ride” is a terrific B-movie, which might sound like faint praise, except it delivers exactly as it should. This is a scary, atmospheric night odyssey, comparable in the best ways to “Ride with the Devil” and “The Hitcher.”

Had the filmmakers come up with a truly killer ending (instead of a limp wristed set up for a sequel), this might have real cult following instead of being the remember-that-movie-we-saw-that-one-time nostalgia generator.

Dahl’s film, even with a few imperfections, thunders along and creates unease towards that driver in the car next to you, as you never know who they could be or what they are capable of.