A quarter-century after C.W. McCall's smash novelty single "Convoy," a generous spirit still exists out there for our 18-wheeled good buddies. But consider the less catchy flip side of that single, "Long, Lonesome Road," and its lament of a maddeningly grim and endless horizon. It's within this uniquely American wasteland that Joy Ride gets its kicks and delivers its shocks.
Precursors abound for this sort of thing -- most specifically Duel and The Hitcher -- but somehow this project manages to be both astoundingly derivative and reasonably entertaining at the same time. Much credit is due director John Dahl, who deftly overhauls the pulpy, ridiculous screenplay by J.J. Abrams and Clay Tarver. A former storyboard artist (for Jonathan Demme and Paul Verhoeven), the director has a strong angle on the back roads and byways of the United States, as evidenced in Red Rock West and The Last Seduction.
First he introduces us to Leelee Sobieski in her underwear, playing a college frosh named Venna who provides ample reason for our hero, Lewis (Paul Walker), to do stupid things. With freshman year at a close, Lewis decides to hock his plane ticket for a 1971 Chrysler in order to drive home from Berkeley to the Midwest; he stops to pick up Venna in Colorado for what he hopes will be a romantic adventure. However, because Lewis is one of those archetypal nice guys upon whom the world cheerfully trods, he must first team up with an obnoxious id in the form of his ne'er-do-well older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), freshly sprung from the clink in Utah.
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In the movie's most ludicrous yet logistically vital scene, Fuller decides to invest in a CB radio -- "a prehistoric Internet" -- for Lewis's car. Tidily establishing himself and his brother with the handles Black Sheep and Mama's Boy, Fuller decides to play a little joke on a creepy, laconic fellow who calls himself Rusty Nail (the voice of Matthew Kimbrough). Fuller coerces Lewis to pretend he's a hot-to-trot woman: "Get him all worked up, then in the middle of it, say, "I'm a dude!'" Fuller instructs.
But Lewis allows the prank to get out of hand, and the boys invite Rusty Nail to visit the "woman" in the room next to theirs at the seedy Lone Star Motel. Because the room's actual occupant is a pugnacious (and conveniently racist) bastard, the boys figure they're in for a giggle or two. The yocks swiftly turn to yucks the next morning, however, when their nasty neighbor turns up with his jaw ripped off. After taking their licks from the law, the brothers set off to fetch Venna as planned, but the unhappily jilted Mr. Nail has other plans.
For a while it's hard to know what to make of this hodgepodge. Yet somehow Dahl's road to ruin develops its own engaging consistency as it rolls along.
The performers put a lot into Joy Ride, which goes a long way toward helping us swallow the notion of an evil, unstoppable trucker who can be anywhere and everywhere at once. Zahn in particular is a hoot, bringing forth the giddy irreverence he honed in the title role of Paul Todisco's clever and contemplative Freak Talks about Sex. Under close scrutiny Joy Ride disintegrates into fairly obvious themes, with Rusty Nail as a vengeful dork, Venna as a confused princess, and Lewis as a white knight. Dahl's affinity for the nightmare of the American highway kicks these familiar elements into gear, reminding us how grisly it can get if we don't drive friendly out there.