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'Joy Ride'

Fear of driving 'Joy Ride' is a thrill ride just for fun

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Stop me if you've heard this one. Two chumps in a car on the open road somewhere out West find themselves tormented by the faceless driver of a monster truck who wants to turn them into fresh road kill.

'Joy Ride'

Rating: R for violence/terror and language.

Players: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski.

Director: John Dahl.

Web site: www.joyridemovie.com

Critic's call:

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"Joy Ride" follows in the footsteps of such 18-wheel wonders as "Duel," a 1971 made-for-TV movie starring Dennis Weaver and directed by a fuzz-cheeked Steven Spielberg; "Maximum Overdrive," a 1986 howler written and directed by Stephen King that's so bad it's not even good camp; and "Breakdown," a surprisingly effective thriller starring Kurt Russell and directed by Jonathan Mostow.

So is this latest trip down the thruway of terror really necessary? No, but why should that matter? When was a joy ride ever essential? The very term speaks of caprice and impulse. We do it for the fun.

"Joy Ride" is fun in the Halloween sense of finding excitement in faux fright. The world, especially now, offers enough real scariness. "Joy Ride" provides the escape that we so often seek in movies.

Paul Walker plays Lewis, a bland California college student about to drive home for the summer. He offers to pick up a female friend, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), at her campus in Colorado. En route, he learns his older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), is getting out of jail in Utah.

Lewis should know better, but that never stops him from doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. He gives a lift to Fuller, who proceeds to take Lewis for a ride.

Fuller is one of those free-spirited individuals who starts trouble as a lark and doesn't care enough about other people to think about the consequences. He buys a cheap CB radio and installs it in Lewis' car (without asking, of course).

When a trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail does the old "breaker breaker," Fuller decides to string him along. He nags Lewis to impersonate a female voice and invite Rusty Nail to a motel rendezvous.

Rusty Nail does not take it lightly when he finds out he's been tricked. Fuller and Lewis do not take it lightly when they find out Rusty Nail knows they were responsible. They spend the rest of the movie dodging the 18-wheeler, a seemingly omniscient force controlled by a man they cannot see but who sure can see them and somehow knows their every movement. The arrival of Venna only gives the trucker even more control of the situation.

Director John Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction") knows the territory, both geographically and psychologically. Working from a screenplay by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams, Dahl orchestrates the suspense masterfully -- allowing for breathers that keep the plotting plausible and give the characters a false sense of security.

He also sprinkles humor throughout. "Joy Ride" is mechanically sound, but it works primarily because of the dynamic between the two brothers. Fuller runs roughshod over others; Lewis lets him do it in spite of himself.

Venna complicates matters even more. Lewis is romantically attracted but is too much of a wimp to tell her, while Fuller doesn't let a little thing like brotherly love stop him from making a play for her.

Walker, the blond heartthrob from "The Fast and the Furious" and "Varsity Blues," makes for smartly ironic casting as the ineffectual Lewis. Zahn, on the other hand, specializes in this kind of wide-eyed wisenheimer and plays him to the hilt -- he honestly doesn't think he's doing anything wrong.

Like other movies of this genre, "Joy Ride" strains credulity after a while. It's a bit much when Rusty Nail starts spray-painting messages for Lewis and Fuller on road signs. Where does he find the time? How does he know they'll pass that way?

But I guess that's what omniscient, faceless villains are for -- not to mention joy rides.

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