The problem with reviewing a film like John Dahl”s “Joy Ride” is that it is impossible to judge how others may react to a “scary” film that only sets out to make you jump. If you”re easily scared, don”t look too deeply and have never, ever seen a horror movie, than this film may drive you into the depths of terror, near the point of paralysis. The Fangoria sect, those of you that go to sleep every night with a “Friday the 13th: The New Blood” (signed by Kane Hodder) poster hanging over their beds, “Joy Ride” is not going to rock your world. For those that avoid extremes like the plague, though, “Joy Ride” is as good a time killer as any, better than most of the cinematic blasphemy of the last couple of months.
Dahl is not exactly an auteur, but his films have always been distinctive. After the interesting “Red Rock West” and the (must avoid pun) fairly poor “Unforgettable,” “Joy Ride” is surprisingly un-ambitious, focusing on a linear, old-fashioned story about unbridled vengeance. Stud-of-the-week Paul Walker (“Fast and the Furious.”) plays Lewis, a stock college kid finishing up his first year away from home. He buys a car when he finds out that love interest Venna (Leelee Sobieski, “Eyes Wide Shut”) needs a ride home to the East Coast. On the way to pick her up, Lewis must stop to bail his dead-beat brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, “Out of Sight”) out of jail for the umpteenth time.
Wait, isn”t this a horror movie? What”s with all this get-to-know you junk, bring on the scary! Enter the CB radio. Now, it”s true that having a CB radio in your car fell out of favor during the Reagan administration, but Fuller (where did he get any money?) insists on installing one for the ride home. It”ll be fun.
Their skewed sense of adventure leads them to pretend to be a lonely female trucker with the brilliant handle Candy Cane. When the scariest voice on the planet (Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs”) answers over the radio, they decide that it would be a great idea to set up a fake meeting between “Candy Kane” and the voice, “Rusty Nail.” Why, they don”t choose someone a little less terrifying is not clear. When Rusty shows up looking for his Candy, his disappointment manifests itself when he tears the jaw off of some unsuspecting schlep.
This is the first act, and before they even have a chance to pick up Venna. For the next two acts, the cat-and-mouse paradigm ensues. Rusty finds out who Candy Cane really is, and one set-piece after another leads the trucker to Lewis and Fuller (and later the lovely Venna), and they escape in the nick of time. Save for one blow-out stunt with a semi, it”s almost impossible not to predict what will happen next three, maybe four, scenes in advance.
Sobieski is a fine young actress, who really shines in the right role, but her Venna is a two-dimensial piece of eye-candy. Zahn has done both very good (“Happy, Texas”) and very, very bad (“Saving Silverman”) in varied roles. Here, he tries too hard to be everything, funny, scared, and a real human being at the same time. He actually appears to be thinking the whole time, trying to figure out how to make his character work, but his performance ends up too uneven. As for Walker, well, Walker was in “Varsity Blues.”
The film seems to believe itself a guilty pleasure, breaking up the “unrelenting” (so sayth the press material) terror with such excess as Walker and Zahn forced to walk naked into a coffee shop. You may be waiting for a follow-up explanation for that, but there really isn”t one. Add to this a ridiculous near-love-triangle that is dropped almost as soon as it”s suggested, and you”ve got yourself a screenwriter working his ass of to get the that 89 minute mark. So goes “Joy Ride.”