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 pictures 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 would-be actioners – it’s rather a horror thriller that just so happens to find a lot of its action on tumbleweed-peppered country highways. But it nevertheless is
sonically similar, reminding one of the days when clever, efficient filmmakers could churn out economic 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. It stars Paul Walker and Steve Zahn as a pair of brothers who decide to play a prank on a trucker who turns out to be ultra-sensitive – and murderous. The movie doesn’t do a whole lot more besides watch and see (behind strategically placed hands) just 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 even manages to get herself tangled in all 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).
But 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 no time.
So it only makes sense that Joy Ride is as remarkable as it is. The ingredients are humble and the expectations are low, but since its makers are such masters of their respective crafts, it turns into something greater than it has any right to be. It’s quite possibly the best ‘70s B-movie that wasn’t made in the ‘70s and wasn’t produced on a B-budget.
It’s Dahl’s craftsmanship that elevates the material. As it was with West and Seduction, which made for crackerjack exertions of sleek stylistic confidence, 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 inspired, undeniably becoming way.
It makes one yearn for the days of the early 2000s, when moderately dumb but nonetheless enjoyable simple thrillers were so much more commonplace 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. Make no mistake: this is smart, proficient moviemaking disguised as mindless escapism. But while it might be escapist, mindless it isn’t. A find. A-