There’s very little happiness in the inaptly-named “Joy Ride,” either for the actors, the filmmakers, or–most of all–the audience. John Dahl’s long-delayed thriller, which has sat on the shelf for a couple of years, turns out to be a numbingly idiotic retread, a half-baked mixture of “Duel” and “The Hitcher” that’s markedly inferior to both those models. It was originally called “Squelch,” a moniker which refers to the Citizens Band radios that are linchpins of the plot; however obscure and unpleasant-sounding, that title is preferable to the present one, because at least it suggested the queasy feeling of being trapped and squeezed that a viewer experiences when confronted by a movie as goofily tawdry as this one.
The set-up is quite simple. Paul Walker, the handsome blond star of “The Fast and the Furious,” plays Lewis Thomas, a California college boy who buys a beat-up car so that he can pick up his home-town friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) at her Colorado campus and get to know her better as they drive back to New Jersey for the summer. On the way, however, he stops to bail his ne’er-do-well brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) out of a local jail. Unfortunately, Fuller insists on sticking with Lewis, and gets them into serious trouble by persuading his sibling to play a joke on a gruff-voiced trucker who goes by the CB moniker of “Rusty Nail.” Pretending to be a woman, Lewis feigns romantic interest in the guy, and eventually invites him to visit “her” in a motel room actually occupied by a notably nasty fellow-guest. When the latter turns up beaten to a pulp, the boys realize they’ve picked the wrong guy to josh; and things get markedly worse when he decides to pay them back, big-time (as Dick Cheney might say). What follows is a cat-and- mouse game in which not only Lewis and Fuller, but the spunky Venna (as well as a few hapless bystanders), are in increasing danger. It all culminates in a bloody confrontation in which the girl’s life hangs in the balance, and the guys’ too.
The idea of a wacked-out truck driver who menaces a motorist or two is hardly new: Steven Spielberg treated the idea brilliantly in his 1971 ABC telefilm, and Victor Salva got good mileage out of the concept in the first part of the recent “Jeepers Creepers” (though that movie fell apart in the later stages). Eric Red and Robert Harmon dispensed with the truck, but used the notion of a psychotic endangering an unsuspecting traveler with similarly chilling results in their 1986 opus (though “The Hitcher” couldn’t sustain its ambiguous premise for the whole trip). But in “Joy Ride” the effort goes nowhere fast. That’s a pity, because Dahl is a canny craftsman who’s previously worked wonders with pulpy material: “Red Rock West” (1993) and “The Last Seduction” (1994) were skillful exercises in noir atmosphere, and though “Unforgettable” (1996) had a ridiculous premise, he gave it considerable panache. (His 1998 “Rounders” had higher aspirations, which it didn’t entirely fulfill.) But in this case the scenario defeats his best efforts. The script by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams is as filled with holes as a pock-marked highway: Exactly how does the mad pursuer learn everything he knows about our heroes? And how in heaven’s name is he even aware that a girl whom he kidnaps to force his prey to do as he wishes happens to be Venna’s roommate? Dahl certainly stages some unsettling scenes–the one in which Lewis and Fuller listen to the arrival of “Rusty Nail” at the motel room next to theirs is genuinely scary, and a sequence at a deserted convenience store raises some goosebumps–but elsewhere the situations are so over-the-top and implausible that it’s impossible for him to maintain even a shred of credibility, or so silly (most notably a sequence in which the boys are compelled to walk into a truck stop nude) that they entirely beak the mood. To make matters worse, just when the contrivance finally lumbers to a stop, it insists on starting up again; there’s one dumb climax after another, and the last–which features Venna trussed up with tape and facing a shotgun blast–is both badly thought-out and ineptly choreographed. (You know a film is in trouble when it places its heroine in such peril–it was a problem in “The Hitcher,” too, though it wasn’t fatal in that case because the picture at least had the courage to see the scene through to the bitter end.) To add insult to injury, a truly stupid twist is tacked on at the close to leave room for a very unlikely sequel. Given the structural weaknesses in the writing, Dahl can’t be blamed overmuch for the fact that this “Ride” comes up short.
The actors, it must be said, don’t rise about the screenplay either. Walker is a good-looking cipher as Lewis, which leaves the job of revving things up almost completely to Zahn, an able farceur whose insistently frenetic style quickly grows wearying; you’re supposed to find Fuller a charming rogue, but Zahn misses the charm. Sobieski is more animated than she was in the recent “The Glass House,” but that only means that she’s not doing an impression of a somnambulist.
“Joy Ride” represents a return to the garish look that marked Dahl’s early pictures (“Rounders” was grittier and more naturalistic), but in this case the effect isn’t amusingly lurid, just cheaply so. Ultimately the picture is a terrible disappointment not merely because it reveals so acutely the limitations of the director’s method, but in the process recalls so many far better flicks. You’d be well advised to watch any of them on video or DVD again instead of wasting your time on this sad wreck of a movie.