1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Joy Ride February 16, 2018
can imagine a parallel universe in which Joy Ride (2001) was released sometime around 1972. Right between the theatrical runs of Vanishing Point (1971) and Gone in 60 Seconds (1974); right around the time studios like American International Pictures were cranking out features like it for little money and lots of profit with the help of Roger Corman.
Granted, Joy Ride isn’t a chintzy car movie like those aforementioned actioners – it’s a sleek horror thriller that just so happens to also set a lot of its action on tumbleweed-peppered country highways. But it's nevertheless spiritually similar, reminding one of the days when clever, efficient filmmakers could churn out economical thrill rides and have the results be pretty ineffaceable.
Just look at its premise, which is simplistic and terse yet cultivates great, white-knuckled sequences of suspense. Joy Ride stars Paul Walker and Steve Zahn as a pair of brothers on a road trip who decide to play a prank on a trucker who turns out to be ultra-sensitive — so ultra-sensitive that when pushed enough he turns homicidal. The movie doesn’t do a whole lot more besides watch and see (some of us might see behind strategically placed hands) how these foolish 20-somethings are going to worm their way out of this never-seen villain’s various stabs at vengeance. Some time into the movie, Walker’s Leelee Sobieski-portrayed love interest manages to get herself tangled in the cat-and-mouse action.
Unexpectedly, though, Joy Ride is an A-quality thriller proudly carrying B-movie vivacity. Which is astounding, considering its material ordinariness and its set of wholesale stars (who, while beautiful and easily likable, were never really cut out to headline movies). Then we notice that the movie’s director is John Dahl, whose jaunty tributes to film noir in the early 1990s — specifically ‘93’s Red Rock West and ‘94’s The Last Seduction — were among the best (and most underrated) movies of that decade. We also learn that the film was co-written by J.J. Abrams, who would, of course, become the driving force behind a bevy of culturally significant television and cinematic projects within a few years.
So it only makes sense that Joy Ride is more remarkable than it has to be. The ingredients are humble and the expectations are low, but since its makers are masters of their respective crafts it becomes elevated formula moviemaking. It’s quite possibly the best ‘70s B movie that wasn’t made in the ‘70s, wasn’t produced on a B-budget. Dahl’s craftsmanship lifts up the material. As it was with West and Seduction, Joy Ride operates on the level of particularly inspired pulp: it’s all neon, moonlit night skies, seedy hotel rooms. It feels ripped from the pages of a grittier-than-usual issue of Fantastic Stories, thrilling but vaguely cartoonish in an undeniably becoming way. Joy Ride also makes one yearn, by way of moviegoing, for the early 2000s, when moderately dumb but nonetheless enjoyably simple thrillers were much more commonplace on a wide scale than they are now. In a 2010s so often characterized by bigness, a movie as small — but monumentally thrilling — as Joy Ride is a treat to be devoured. A-