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Joy Ride is the second horror road movie (with The Forsaken) of the year. It follows two brothers, Fuller (Steve Zahn) and Lewis (Paul Walker). The former has just been released from jail, and the latter is on his way to pick up a friend in Colorado, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), with the hopes that he can become more to her. To kill time, they decide to use their CB radio to have a little fun with a trucker known only as Rusty Nail (voice of Silence of the Lamb's Ted Levine). Their victim doesn't take their joke lightly, though, and embarks on a crusade of terror and humiliation against the two (and eventually three when Venna enters the picture).
This is a really good, entertaining movie, but it should have been great. The first half of the film was really excellent, a true masterwork. Thrilling and chilling, it was a real nerve-twister. In particular was the sequence set at the motel. Director John Dahl (Rounders) bathes the outside portion (the set-up) in red...a sign of foreboding danger. Later, in the room, it's in green...a nice touch, since it both enhances the mood and subtley says that this is where the movie really starts to "go". The sound in the room is also fantastic...some of the best sound effects editing I've heard.
After some continued intenseness, the film lets up for a bit. Typically, moments of relief are capitalized on by the director and the script to scare and/or shock you even more than you had been previously (see the "oh, it's not the killer, it's the cat" routine from 80s slasher films). Dahl wastes that potential here by letting the easy-going middle section go on for a while. It's directed fine, and there's some good bits, but most of it is completely unnecessary to the plot and Joy Ride loses much of its collected steam.
It does pick up some later, but never to the same degree. The second half of the film just seems to be missing that momentum that keeps most other horror films entrancing. It has to work far too hard, and it shows...it starts stealing copiously from other films (as if it wasn't already ripping off Duel), including, of all films, North by Northwest (listen to the score in the cornfield...sound familiar?).
The finale is fine, and I'd probably think better of it if I hadn't already seen the kind of tension and terror the movie was really capable of. Also, it's in this part that some characters make a lot of stupid decisions that made me want to slap them. I really hate a movie that has to rely on stupidity to get ahead.
The actors in the film from the good, the decent, and the underutilized. Steve Zahn...I LOVE this guy (in my notes, I had that underlined three times, with an addition "Zahn - I like 'im"). There were some scenes that probably would not have worked without him, including most of CB shenanigans. He really gives it his all in this movie, and it shows. Paul Walker was okay...I didn't not like his performance, but I couldn't help but think his part could have been better written.
Walker fares much better, however, than Ms. Sobieski, who is totally underused. This is a totally thankless part for the actress. She's a victim-in-waiting, practically, something that has her waiting around, running, being scared, and being confused. She has a few additional storylines hinted at, but they are never seen out to their conclusion. It's probably for the best, as the movie still has some unnecessary fat without those subplots, but I wished they'd never been brought up in the first place.
Joy Ride is really one of those cases where the film is probably hurt for having a really fantastic first half, because everything after just pales. It's like looking at seeing the most beautiful sunset in the world, and then seeing your cousin Adam's pretty decent painting of it. You probably would have loved the painting if you hadn't seen the real thing. Come in expecting nothing, and you'll find a really enjoyable thriller.