Director: John Dahl
Way back in 1971, a then-unknown Steven Spielberg made a TV-movie called Duel. The tale of a sadistic trucker hunting a man on a cross-country road trip, it became a cult classic (at least among my circle of friends in college) and was one of the more well-known films in the unheralded "automotive vengeance" genre. In 2001, another film came along that bore a strong resemblance to Duel, titled Joy Ride.
Our story starts with Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker), who's about to get out of college for summer break. He begins a journey across the country to his New Jersey home, stopping to bail his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) out of jail. Fuller decides to accompany his brother home, and the two hit the road. During a random pit stop, Fuller gets a mechanic to install a CB radio on the car, and the two start messing around, joking with truckers over the radio. They proceed to play a practical joke on a trucker calling himself "Rusty Nail" (the voice of Ted Levine), pretending that Lewis is a woman named "Candy Cane."
Lewis talks Rusty Nail into meeting the non-existent Candy Cane at a roadside motel, telling him that Candy Cane will be waiting in a particular room (one occupied by a man who picked a fight with Fuller in the motel lobby). Rusty Nail eventually arrives at the room, but lacking a sense of humor, Rusty Nail proceeds to brutally murder the man. Lewis and Fuller flee the next morning, only to be continually taunted by Rusty Nail's voice over the radio and on the highway. The duo encounters their foe at a gas station, and he proceeds to chase them into the woods, almost destroying their car in the process. When they hastily apologize, Rusty Nail backs off, seemingly forgiving them. Stopping only to pick up Lewis's long-distance girlfriend Venna (Leelee Sobieski), they soon discover that Rusty Nail is still watching them, never letting them get a moment's rest. The demented trucker follows them across the country, playing his own sick joke on the trio.
Having never seen Duel, I can't really compare it to Joy Ride, but I will say that Joy Ride is a better film than you'd think. It's got good acting, fun dialogue (thanks to a well-written script by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams), and plenty of scares. As one would suspect, most of the movie takes place in the trio's car, and the interaction between Walker, Zahn, and Sobieski is very entertaining, to say the least. All three put on fantastic performances. Even when things take a turn for the worst, they do a great job in making you feel bad for them, even if its their fault that Rusty Nail is after them. And one also feels sorry for Rusty Nail, who was the butt of a joke and now wants retribution. Just hearing Ted Levine's voice is enough to make you simultaneously pity and fear him, and I think that makes him come across as a more intimidating villian because he's got nothing to lose. I also commend John Dahl's direction and Jeffrey Juhr's cinematography, as the movie is visually great, with many great camera angles and colors highlighting and downplaying the action onscreen. Marco Beltrami's score is also astounding, lending a haunting "bump in the night" feel to the movie that is much welcomed.
Overall, I'm gonna give Joy Ride three stars. Despite a lackluster, almost unsatisfactory ending, and a weird "been there, done that" feeling, I recommend the movie. It's not perfect, but it's got enough to make it a great thriller. Plenty of fun car chases, good cheap scares, well done action scenes, and good acting puts Joy Ride on my list of movies that would make a fine rental from your local video store.
Final Rating: ***