It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye ? or a life, in the case of “Joy Ride,” the new suspense thriller about a road-trip prank gone awry.
College student Lewis (Paul Walker, “The Fast and the Furious”) and his troubled older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, “Saving Silverman”) are on the open highway, heading home and stopping to pick up Venna, (Leelee Sobieski, “The Glass House”) the girl Lewis has had a crush on for years.
Ah, the coveted freedom that comes with having a car in college and the open road in front of you. But the open road is a little dull, so the brothers buy a CB radio and talk to truck drivers. The brothers amuse themselves by cajoling each other into playing a little prank and setting up a meeting with trucker Rusty Nail and an imaginary woman in a cheap motel.
Unfortunately Rusty Nail doesn’t think the prank is funny, and the mischievous set-up ends in violence that is heard, not seen. The humiliated trucker decides to punish the travelling trio by stalking them and messing with their heads. With chilling premeditation and a rough voice, Rusty Nail figures out the identity of the three and stays one step ahead of them on the road as he plans violent revenge. As a faceless-stalker-in-a-semi on the road, there is no way of knowing which trucker is out to get them.
“Joy Ride” is frightening because of the premeditated revenge. As you watch Rusty Nail bait the three and toy with them, seemingly unimportant details in the story unravel in this full-circle thriller. “Joy Ride” terrifies without relying on gruesome effects that are too often used to make would-be scary movies work. Instead, the tension is increased so slowly that you don’t even realize you are holding onto the armrest or your movie-going companion. And just when the tension becomes unbearable, Zahn is there to make quick one-liners that are more or less his standard bit.
So “Joy Ride” isn’t a new story. In fact, director John Dahl, who is known for thrillers like “The Last Seduction,” “Kill Me Again” and “Red Rock West” could be accused of borrowing some of the story from other flicks like “Breakdown” and “Duel.” But that doesn’t take away from the fact that lonely psycho truckers seeking revenge are really scary.
Sobieski, who has been popping up all over, is a huge disappointment, which is not entirely her fault. She plays the sexy, bra-less object of desire well, but her character is flat and so is her acting ability ? which is not to say that Walker and Zahn are winning any awards for their performances.
Ultimately, “Joy Ride” reminds us that movies can be suspenseful. They can string you along and frighten by letting the tension build and your nerves get the best of you. It’s a guarantee you’ll remember the voice of Rusty Nail the next time you think about doing a little pranking.