Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Dahl

Cast: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Bowman

MPAA Rating: R (for violence/terror and language)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 10/5/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Joy Ride is one of those rare movies that I know I shouldn’t like, but it is so well executed, so completely in touch with its inherent faults, so blissfully intent on doing what it’s supposed to, I cannot help but enjoy it. This is the sort of material of which bad movies are made. The plot is convoluted, contrived, and improbable, but it all somehow works. The characters exist solely to get from point A to point B and all the way to a climax that depends on ludicrously perfect timing to resolve the conflict. The conflict itself achieves a small sort of brilliance in its simplicity. Indeed, the only complicated aspect of the entire movie is the craft in which it achieves its suspense.

Taking what seems to be a growingly popular setup for movies, Joy Ride begins with the promise of a road trip. Lewis (Paul Walker) has just discovered that one of his oldest friends Venna (Leelee Sobieski) has just broken up with her boyfriend. So in an attempt to ignite sparks, he sells his plane tickets, buys a car, and heads to her school to take her home. Conveniently on the way is Salt Lake City, where Lewis’ older and troublemaking brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has been arrested. After Lewis bails him out, Fuller installs a CB radio in the car, and the two have some fun playing with the loneliness of a desperate trucker. After a few conversations in which Lewis disguises his voice as "Candy Cane," the two see their chance to get back at an extremely rude man at a motel. They arrange a meeting with the trucker in the man’s room, but the rendezvous turns sour, and the police tell the two that the man was barely left alive.

Now we can assume that the trucker will follow the two, otherwise there is no movie. But the screenplay by Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams has a few tiny surprises in store for us. One of the most important and probably overlooked is the way in which the boys confess their involvement to the police. A lesser movie would try to add another level of suspense by having the two keep quiet and thereby worry about being caught. This is just one of the ways in which the screenplay is constructed with the bare essentials in mind, and it’s this tight structure that helps the movie flow so smoothly.

Once we’ve gone through the exposition and the first scare, we begin to feel slight relief—knowing there’s more to come but having a hard time seeing from where. But it builds again, and keeps an almost constant level of suspense until the finale. Joy Ride was directed by John Dahl, who did great work on the modern noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, and here he shows his skill at pure thriller. Helped by no less than four editors (a number that, at first thought, had me a bit worried), Dahl keeps Joy Ride just over an hour and half, and just as in Jurassic Park III, he proves that less is definitely more.

The cast is decidedly small with most of the roles filled by actors playing cops or truck drivers in the background. The leads are chosen for their obvious appeal to the youth market. Paul Walker, who most will remember from either The Skulls or this year’s The Fast and the Furious, shows that he is really just a pretty face. He has a certain charm, but not much behind that. Leelee Sobieski has proven herself to be a great young actress, but she seems bent to prove the opposite (and show off some other things, too, thanks to some inappropriately distracting costumes). A few weeks ago, she went through the motions in The Glass House, and she does the same thing here. This leaves us with only one character with whom to sympathize, and luckily, he is played by Steve Zahn. Zahn is an actor mostly associated with purely comedic roles, but this is really a star-making performance. His character is rounded, sympathetic, funny, and, most importantly, believable. It’s strange to see his character progress from one who should have been simple comic relief into one who grounds the whole movie.

Joy Ride is a good thriller with the makings of a great one. We moan the prospect of three sympathetic characters but rejoice at the presence of one as sympathetic as the Zahn character. We’re distracted by the tone of a public nudity scene but forget about it when the characters are brought together in the climax. There will be comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and they aren’t too far off. Like all good thrillers, both give us the feeling of the gears working without ever having them stick out.

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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