Joy Ride," a sly and scary thriller-chiller, is the latest from John Dahl, maestro of neo-noir, and it is terrific escapist fare, stylish, outrageous and compelling. Many have tried but few have been able to draw upon the sardonic fatalism of classic noir as effectively as Dahl to make films that are completely contemporary in tone and humor, beginning with his "Red Rock West" in 1993, which was soon followed by "The Last Seduction" with Linda Fiorentino as an unforgettably heartless femme fatale.
This slam-bang Fox release strikes precisely the right note and never lets it go. Leelee Sobieski is a pretty and surely popular college girl and clearly knows it. When she unexpectedly needs a cross-county ride to New Jersey with the arrival of summer vacation, she knows just whom to call: Paul Walker's Lewis, who's at another school some distance away but also somewhere in the Southwest. She's fully aware that he's had a crush on her since they were kids and really works it to her advantage over the phone. Never mind that Lewis has a plane ticket in hand: He's out the door in a flash to buy a rust-bucket used car just to be on the road with the girl of his dreams. Apparently a scholarship student and quite possibly from the other side of the tracks from Sobieski's lovely and self-confident Venna, Lewis also is a good guy. Before he picks up Venna, he stops at a prison to collect his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn), who is being released and is surprised that Lewis has shown up.
Fuller has trouble written all over him. He's reckless, zany but not surpassingly bright, and so volatile and edgy that he could be a little crazy and therefore dangerous. He's a bundle of energy that's been pent up for a long time, and his understandable latent jealousy of Lewis, who has his life together, makes him pushy and needling--to the point that Lewis finally reads him the riot act. Fuller, however, is irrepressible by nature and, during a stopover, has a used CB radio installed in the car behind Lewis' back.
By now a warm camaraderie between the brothers has surfaced. Against his better judgment, Lewis goes along with Fuller's urging that he assume a falsetto voice and, as the seductive "Candy Cane," come on to a trucker over the CB with the handle Rusty Nail, even making a date with him at a motel some distance ahead. It's just a joke, of course, but to be sure, Rusty Nail is not going to be amused.
Nothing more need be revealed about "Joy Ride" beyond stating that Venna does come along for the ride. Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams' script, while broader than is typical for Dahl, fits the director's sensibility to a T, and "Joy Ride" becomes a jolting roller coaster of a movie full of twists and turns, some of them gleefully savage.
Like earlier Dahl films, it is also a well-observed journey through America's heartland, in this instance an especially remote stretch with the pitch black of the night relieved only by the occasional gas station and neon motel sign. A previous Dahl collaborator, cinematographer Jeffrey Jur, has given the film a great noir feel even though working in color, balancing breathtaking high-octane action and suspense sequences with stunning images of vast open spaces. Marco Beltrami's score complements the film's quicksilver shifts in mood.
"Joy Ride" is a high-wire act, full of risks and shameless in resorting to old ploys only to put a fresh spin on them. As an action comedy played at the darkest pitch, "Joy Ride" is a plus for all concerned, especially its actors. For Zahn, the role of Fuller allows him a full range of emotion and temperament while keeping us uncertain of the ex-con's true nature. For Walker, the film is strong follow-up to "The Fast and the Furious" in establishing him as a leading man with a clean-cut look that belies considerable inner strengths and resources. And for the skilled Sobieski, "Joy Ride" helps erase the already nearly forgotten "Glass House." Jessica Bowman, as Venna's college pal, is seen only briefly but it's enough for her to light up the screen. Satch Huizenga is a truck driver who gives the brothers a scare and a laugh--and more.
MPAA-rated: R, for violence/terror and language. Times guidelines: The film is too intense and graphic for children despite a humorous tone.
Steve Zahn: Fuller
Paul Walker: Lewis
Leelee Sobieski: Venna
A 20th Century Fox release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency/Bad Robot/Live Planet production in association with Epsilon Motion Pictures. Director John Dahl. Producers J.J. Abrams and Chris Moore. Executive producers Arnon Milchan, Parick Markey, Bridget Johnson. Screenplay Clay Tarver and Abrams. Cinematographer Jeffrey Jur. Stunt coordinator/second unit director Terry Leonard. Music Marco Beltrami. Costumes Terry Dresbach. Production designer Rob Pearson. Art director Michael Rizzo. Set decorator Beth De Sort. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times