There is something oddly disconcerting about "Joy Ride" (IMDb listing). Directed by the noir-maestro John Dahl ("The Last Seduction," "Rounders"), "Joy Ride" is so chock full of unease and mounting drama that the picture cannot help but be rendered slack by the numbness of it all. A B-list idea for a film brought to the screen by A-list filmmakers, "Joy Ride" is a dud simply because it never bothers to pay off its deliberate pacing.
On a break from college, Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) decides to buy a car and travel home for the week, stopping along the way to pick up his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski). When Lewis finds out his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has just been released from jail, he makes a pit stop to pick him up as well. To kill time, the brothers install a CB radio in the car and begin to have fun messing with the legions of truckers lining the interstates of the Midwest. Trouble arises when Lewis and Fuller pick the wrong trucker to mess witha trucker who proceeds to terrorize the two brothers with physical and mental violence.
Make no mistake about it, "Joy Ride" is as commercial a film as they come. Piling "Scream" and Steven Spielberg's "Duel" into the cinematic blender, "Joy Ride" covers no new ground in both story and thrills. Yet, under the eye of Dahl, the film has flashes of originality and true cinematic style. Battling both the needs of his artistic side with the ravenous demands of the genre's supporters, Dahl at least tries to make a go of it, attempting to layer "Joy Ride" with something more concrete than just popcorn mentality.
The colors that Dahl and cinematographer Jeff Jur choose in the picture are interesting, as they bathe the cast in tail-light reds and seedy motel yellows. Their framing creates an impressive amount of tension in the proceedings. In the end, Dahl fails to sustain any of these elements as the story slowly spirals more and more out of his control. By the time the climax rolls around, "Joy Ride" is all cheap shocks and never-ending climaxes. A far cry from the careful filmmaking that opens the picture, and that Dahl has showcased before.
To say that Dahl's direction is the best part of "Joy Ride" is easy. As the two leads of the picture, both Paul Walker and Steve Zahn fall back on their tired, pathetically familiar personalities: Walker as the sensitive hunk and Zahn as the careless (but lovable) goofball who has a quip for every hair on his head. I couldn't imagine a more unpleasant acting duo than these two, and they go out of their way to sink whatever higher aspirations Dahl has for his film. Frankly, I was hoping the demented truck driver would catch up with the duo, leaving the much more talented Leelee Sobieski to take over and ride the film to its climax. But no such luck. We're stuck with the braindead Walker and the painfully unfunny Zahn for the entire picture.
It's tough to classify "Joy Ride" as strictly a psychological thriller when the picture has touches of slasher-film horror in it. The filmafter a limp but calm openingeventually finds the suspense sweet spot and builds off that, creating beautiful initial tension. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Dahl just isn't interested in paying off this tension. "Joy Ride" often grips you tightly, then lets go for no reason. This jumbled pace repeats and repeats until boredom sets in with the knowledge that not one scene will end with a payoff.
How can a tension-filled fright fest be boring? Well, Dahl somehow manages to make it all very monotonous. When the expected ending does arrive, it's all for nothing. The audience is too dizzy from all the ducking and weaving Dahl does to even care.
"Joy Ride" is anything but a joy. Hopefully this little excursion into the mainstream will teach Dahl to solely rely on his instincts from now on. Believe me, he's a much better filmmaker that way.
Filmfodder Grade: D