Joy Ride

A thriller as taut and lean as Leelee Sobieski's thighs

Apparently the huge void of talent that is Paul Walker can't hurt a film that has him behind the wheel of a car. Like this summer's The Fast and The Furious, Walker stars in a low-key B-Picture that surrounds the dull heartthrob with talent. Duel meets I Saw What You Did, and it works.

The story starts simple and keeps its straightforward. In a bid to make some time with longtime crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski), Lewis (Walker) trades his plane ticket home for an old car. After bailing his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) out of jail, Lewis impersonates a woman over his CB radio as a prank, setting up a meeting with one of the lonesome voices known only as Rusty Nail. Rusty's reaction to finding a fat man in the hotel room promised to contain a willing young lass? Rip the fat man's jaw off and dump him at the side of the road. The brothers and Venna become the focus of the spurned trucker's rage and he is soon having his own brand of fun with them.

Director John Dahl (Rounders) understands that a trailer truck on the road versus a car is an already impersonal threat. Add a personal vendetta and a scary voice (a la Scream) and you've got a pretty unmatchable antagonist. Steven Spielberg started his career on a similar note with the excellent Duel, but that film's mute truck seemed like a force of nature. Adding a voice gives Joy Ride's rig a mind behind the wheel.

The film's suspense is masterful, but the well-defined characters and their relationships make it work. A funny motor mouth with eyes for his brother's girl, Zahn plays Fuller simultaneously charming and odious. Sobieski turns in another great performance as a girl probably playing Lewis as badly as they played Rusty Nail, but who doesn't even know that she's doing it. Paul Walker is, well, Paul Walker. He's hunky enough for the girls to moisten their seats, and bland enough that one can ignore his vaguely Keanu-esque delivery.

The characters take on another level of realism in that their relationships barely advance in the short story time. Too often the tension of an action flick or a thriller speeds a relationship from meeting cute to meeting bed in a matter of days, if not hours. After pining for years for Venna, Lewis finally makes his move and while his feelings for her affect many of his decisions, no actual romance ever happens. Fuller and Lewis's brotherhood sways from resentment one second to goading one into something with punches to the arm the next.

In a real-life tense situation people cope as best they can. They don't have "I've always loved you" and "Daddy always liked you best" cathartic breakthroughs. Thankfully, Joy Ride's characters simply cope. They try to survive the events as they come up.

Dahl keeps the tension up in high gear all story long making everyone, from locals in a Midwestern bar to angry motel guests to cops, a threat to Lewis and Company. When it seems that they can only trust each other, they even turn on themselves.

Except for Walker's lack of acting skill, Joy Ride hits every mark, barreling down on the audience like Rusty Nail's semi.

What's it worth? $9

Jordan Rosa

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