Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Starring Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski,
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Review by Gregory P. Dorr
If truck drivers had anywhere near the political will of other special interest groups, the theatrical release of Joy Ride would no doubt have been engulfed in controversy over its creepy depiction of their ilk. In the tradition of Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), the Australian thriller Road Games (1981), and in some ways Jonathan Mostow's fine Breakdown (1997), Joy Ride faithfully adheres to Movieland's sinister take on these peculiar nomadic creatures who stalk the night in their monstrous rigs, wrestling with demons of loneliness the likes of us will never understand.
Paul Walker stars as Lewis, a clean-cut college freshman eager to spend some quality time with the newly single girl of his dreams, Venna (Leelee Sobieski). Both are headed home to Newark, N.J., for the summer, and Venna wishfully muses that if Lewis had a car, he could pick her up in Boulder, Co., on his way from Los Angeles for a refreshing (and most likely intimate) road trip. Lewis doesn't hesitate to cash in his plane ticket, buy a used car, and start off on a cross country journey of love.
However, in movies like Joy Ride things never work out as planned. Lewis takes another impetuous detour, this time to stop in Salt Lake City where his estranged, ne'er-do-well older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has run afoul of the law, again. After an uneasy reunion, Fuller invites himself along, as least as far as Boulder. Fuller installs a CB radio in Lewis' car, ostensibly to avoid speed traps, but which, given Fuller's reckless propensity for irresponsible actions, becomes a instrument of thoughtless prankism.
But of course, this sort of movie prank never ends with a laugh. At first, Fuller's idea of Lewis imitating a sexy female trucker to play with the obviously repressed libidos of other drivers seems like an innocent lark. And when one apparently slow-witted rig operator with the handle Rusty Nail (the inimitably disturbing voice of Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine) latches on to Candy Cane (as Lewis calls himself) and Fuller devises a mischievous plan to lure Rusty Nail to an isolated motel with the promise of some snuggling and Pink Champagne, Lewis reluctantly goes along, and the joke begins to turn, well, a little dark, as Rusty plots his grisly revenge.
Directed by John Dahl, who was responsible for the best of the early 1990s noir revival with Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, Joy Ride is tight and slick and perfectly paced, even if its material is often too familiar. Dahl's use of color is terrifically vivid and plays a major part in creating tremendous visual variety, despite most of the film taking place within the interior of a car, and the director's feel for remote western U.S. locations is put to effective use yet again. But not even Dahl's expertise can surmount Clay Tarver's and J.J. Abrams' screenplay, which, while with bright moments (they also acknowledge The Hitcher  as inspiration), sticks too rigidly to formula, including the unfortunate standard of characters acting as stupidly as possible in order to prolong dramatic sequences (for instance, when a monster rig is chasing you down, do you try to outrun it in a straight line or do you take advantage of your smaller car's agility and execute a few sharp turns? Care to guess which happens here?)
Joy Ride's marquee player is Steve Zahn, who is always interesting, often funny, and has a unerring capacity to remain believable in unbelievable circumstances. Paul Walker does a fine job playing the straight man to Zahn's unpredictable screw-up. Sobieski, too, is good, but she is rarely seen during the first half of the film. Her sincere countenance makes an odd fit for such B-movie material (with her cherubic face and sad-eyes, Sobieski always seems to be sanctimoniously carrying the weight of world on her shoulders, even while the weight of her chest is jarringly bursting out her shirt), but her presence adds unusual weight to the intense, if hackneyed, climax.
Fox's Joy Ride DVD features a terrific anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio tracks. The disc also features three commentary tracks:
- The first track, with director Dahl, is better than most. It takes Dahl a few minutes to get into the groove (he begins by deriding DVD commentaries and then catches himself as he falls into the trap of simply describing the onscreen action), but for the most part his comments are insightful, reflexive and analytical, and his delivery is conversational and low-key.
- The second commentary, by screenwriters Tarver and Abrams, is much less serious and lacks the perspective Dahl brings. In their chatty, disorganized way, they mostly focus on the script's evolution toward the final film.
- The third commentary track features Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski, recorded separately, and Zahn certainly has more fun with the project than his counterpart. Zahn, well aware of how little he has to say about the film, has fun, making truck and siren noises to complement onscreen action and offering a few amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Sobieski, meanwhile, struggles to find any insights of interest.
Documenting the difficulty in finding a formulaic ending that fittingly climaxes the story and yet does not lose the audience with its absurdity, this DVD also features four alternate endings:
- The original ending (28:33), considerably different, sillier, and markedly less believable than the film's eventual ending (which begs credibility itself), displays a desperate attempt by novice screenwriters to wrap up a story that's out of control, and the accompanying commentary tracks by both the writers and director Dahl confirm this.
- The remaining three alternate endings (8:13), (3:29) and (5:30) are very similar to the film's final ending, merely with divergent dénouements, each of which bears equal merits and drawbacks. The fourth alternate ending is incomplete and augmented with Dahl's storyboards, creating a surreal live-action/crude animation composite which, in its visual funkiness, is the most interesting of the four. Dahl and the screenwriting team provide separate optional commentaries for each alternate scene.
Also here is one bit of deleted material from the middle of the film (with an optional commentary by Sobieski), a comparison of alternate voice actors for Rusty Nail, and a standard flashy "making-of" featurette (4:11).
Gregory P. Dorr
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
- English, Spanish subtitles
- Commentary by director John Dahl
- Commentary by screenwriters Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams
- Commentary by actors Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski
- One deleted scene and four alternate endings, with optional commentary
- Alternate voice recordings
- "Making-of" featurette
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