Director: John Dahl
Cast: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski
Screenplay: Clay Turner, J.J. Abrams
97 mins. Rated R for violence/terror and language.
It’s odd that a film like Joy Ride took four years from start to finish. Directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, TV’s Dexter), Joy Ride went through so many permutations that you could essentially put together a different movie from just the deleted scenes and alternate endings. This little B-movie slice of Americana thriller is one that doesn’t get talked about too much anymore, and while it had two sequels, it’s just not discussed as a short little piece of tense genre enjoyment. I probably haven’t watched Joy Ride since just after it came out, so I figured now is the best time to look back on this film, give it a rewatch, and see if there’s something worth remembering.
Lewis (Paul Walker, The Fast and the Furious, Running Scared) is a college freshman who has just discovered that his childhood crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski, Never Been Kissed, Amerikali Kiz) is newly single, and he’s embarking on a cross-country trip to pick her up during summer break on the hope to get a little closer. On the way, he’s been tasked with retrieving his deadbeat brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, War for the Planet of the Apes, TV’s The White Lotus), who’s just been released from prison. Fuller and Lewis don’t have the best relationship, and the two find themselves bonding over a silly prank played over the car’s CB radio to a voice known as Rusty Nail, but Rusty Nail doesn’t like being pranked, and he’s out to get vengeance as the two brothers and Venna try to evade him on the open roads.
Rarely is the standout performance of a film just a disembodied voice on a CB radio, but Ted Levine, in an uncredited role, is a nasty and tense and incredible as Rusty Nail. The entire film hinges on his ability to do more with less, and it’s clear that he’s the right choice for role, having been brought aboard the production rather late. We don’t get much to go on with him, as a character, but that’s maybe the best thing for someone like Rusty Nail. Because we, and also our cast of youths, are unable to discern just who this villainous voice is, we have a small-but-impactful bit of whodunnit that ties in nicely with this riff on Duel and The Hitcher.
As far as our group of youths, they are serviceable enough. While Lewis doesn’t have a lot of character development outside of “somewhat horny college kid who makes bad mistake,” Walker infuses him with charisma, which is part of what made him such a special performer. He was always able to add a likability. On the other side of things, Steve Zahn’s Fuller is just kind of an asshole. Zahn is putting everything he can into his performance, but the writing just makes him so unlikable. As the film goes on, you kind of want him to suffer for his actions, making it hard to empathize with his being put into danger. Again, Zahn is capable of adding some likability, but the character is just written too poorly. As for Sobieski, I couldn’t honestly tell you anything interesting about her character, as she’s mostly stock characterized and not all that interesting a character.
The film’s greatest strength has to come from the tension. It’s a flawed movie but it does have a high amount of engagement where I was geniunely concerned about how Lewis was going to thwart Rusty Nail. Again, a lot of tension comes from Levine, but it should be noted that director John Dahl does a solid job of ratcheting up the tension often enough to keep the whole movie entertaining, which makes up for a number of its faults.
And the film does indeed have faults. As with the characterization of both Fuller and Venna being underwhelming, there’s also a significant amount of logic gaps and inconsistencies revolving around Rusty Nail. There are a number of plot points that require Rusty Nail to have a far better understanding of things he should know nothing about. At times, he seems all-powerful and omniscient, and it makes one question the realism that we as audience members have been asked to accept. It also feels like the film ties up a little quickly. There are a number of plot threads that I would’ve liked to see fully resolved instead of just assumed. I’m well aware of the number of alternate scenes and endings that led to Joy Ride’s four-year production, and that’s likely where a lot of this is resolved. Hey, at least they changed the name from Squelch to Joy Ride, right?
Joy Ride is thankfully quite an entertaining little B-movie that has some early 2000s grindhouse-y flavor. I found myself quite enjoying this little action thriller and I’ll probably revisit the film again, not it likely won’t take another twenty years. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have released a special edition of the film that randomizes the ending we got with one of several that were filmed and left unused, a la Clue. If not, I’m content enough with the film we got. It’s a fun little time-killer.
-Kyle A. Goethe