Joy Ride is a white-knuckle cautionary tale about the dangers of being a jerk.
Directed with tempered zeal by John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), this may be the most deliciously unsettling movie of 2001. It's got bad guys who are really bad, good guys who don't exactly bathe themselves in glory, innocents who deserve a whole lot better, and enough honest chills to keep audiences' nerves on end.
Things start off innocently enough. Lewis (Paul Walker) is about to fly home from college when he receives a phone call from his longtime unrequited love, the beautiful Venna (Leelee Sobieski). Her ride home has fallen through; perhaps they could drive cross-country together.
Of course, the plane ticket gets returned, Lewis buys a used car, and he's off to pick up Venna. But then he makes mistake No. 1, detouring through Salt Lake City so he can bail his no-good brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), out of jail.
Fuller is a poster boy for jerkdom. After installing a CB in the car, he persuades Lewis to help him entice a trucker into an imaginary late-night rendezvous at a roadside hotel. Won't the poor sap be surprised, Fuller chuckles, when the hottie waiting for him in Room 17 turns out to be a surly businessman with a short fuse?
Thus comes mistake No. 2, as the boys carry out their little prank. Only the trucker (whose CB handle is Rusty Nail) is not exactly amused. Homicidal is more like it. Mistake No. 3 comes when Lewis and Fuller pick up Venna anyway, even after their first encounter with Rusty Nail nearly turns fatal. They think Rusty Nail is finished with them. They're wrong.
Screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Clay Tarver are smart enough to leaven their script when the tension gets too high. As Lewis and Fuller stare in horror at the surprise package left in their trunk, a clueless Venna insists, "I'm not doing anything until you tell me why I should be scared of a radio."
But once the four principals all know what's going on, the action rarely lets up. More important, the potential for action never lets up; you never know what's coming around the next corner.
And Dahl, although clearly enjoying the film's intensity, is smart enough to underplay things when necessary. That's especially true of the fateful encounter between Rusty Nail and the supposed hottie. We never see what happens, only hear a couple of muffled voices through a hotel-room wall.
What's happens in the rest of the film, of course, is a pretty nasty form of payback. In Joy Ride's world, paybacks really can be hell.
Starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski
Directed by John Dahl
Rated R (Violence, adult language)
Released by 20th Century Fox
Running time 97 minutes
Sun score ***1/2