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(2001) (Steve Zahn, Paul Walker) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A vindictive truck driver terrorizes two brothers and their friend after the young men pull a prank on the anonymous trucker.
Lewis Thomas (PAUL WALKER) is a college student who's going to drive across the country, picking up his hometown friend, Venna (LEELEE SOBIESKI), along the way. He makes a small detour beforehand, however, to bail his estranged brother, Fuller (STEVE ZAHN), out of jail.

As the two become reacquainted, Fuller persuades Lewis to pull a prank on an anonymous trucker they overhear on the CB radio. Acting like a woman named Candy Cane, Lewis tells the trucker - known only by his handle, "Rusty Nail" -- to meet "her" at a motel that night, giving the truck driver the number of the room next to theirs. Believing they're in for some fun, the brothers eavesdrop on the trucker's arrival next-door that night, but are horrified when they discover the next morning that he severely beat up the occupant of that room.

Back on the road, the two hear Rusty Nail on the CB again and learn to their horror that he knows who they are and is apparently following them. After a close call with the vindictive trucker where they apologize, the two pick up Venna and believe their troubles are behind them. Little do they know, however, that the trucker has more in store for them. From that point on, they and Venna do what they must to avoid the deranged truck driver.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's been said that Hollywood has no more original stories to tell, and after seeing the past several years of movie releases, I'm inclined to agree with the statement. After all, beyond a given film here and there, most of what's been released - and is yet to come - is just a derivative work - in one way or another - of some previous effort.

That, of course, is usually a bad thing. Yet, every so often a film comes along that puts a fresh enough spin on the old material that it comes off as palatable and even enjoyable. "Joy Ride" is one such picture. As written by screenwriters Clay Tarver (making his debut) and Jeffrey Abrams ("Armageddon," "Forever Young"), the tale concerns a trio of young people that finds themselves terrorized repeatedly by an anonymous trucker with a score to settle, all as they try to make their way through some desolate parts of the countryside.

Sound familiar? If you're a fan of director Steven Spielberg, actor Dennis Weaver, or have watched old movies rerun on TV, it should since that's really just an updated retreading of Spielberg's 1971 telefilm, "Duel." It featured Weaver as an ordinary man pursued by a crazed, but anonymous trucker intent on terrorizing, if not killing, him. Marking Spielberg's first feature length effort, the picture was a terrific exercise in turning a rather simplistic story into an effective and often harrowing movie experience.

As directed by John Dahl ("Rounders," "Unforgettable"), "Joy Ride" pretty much comes off the same way, even if it loses some points for obvious lack of originality. While certain parts of the script are either farfetched or not credibly explained - such as the trucker's ability to track down the trio's every move and know their names - much of it works, particularly in light of the genre and what the film is trying to achieve.

In essence, the filmmakers have taken the masked boogeyman character from the slasher films of the past several decades and replaced him with an anonymous trucker who uses his rig, rather than a knife, as his threatening weapon of choice. The rest is pretty much the same as various close shaves and narrow escapes ensue, with the villain also verbally taunting those he's hunting.

Yet, for all of the familiarity, the film works. Dahl manages to set up and execute various suspense scenes with skill, and the picture often comes off as a true, edge of your seat thriller. That's particularly true later in the film when everything is ratcheted up for greater effect.

Really just a three-person show, the cast members -- Steve Zahn ("Saving Silverman," "Happy, Texas"), Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious," "The Skulls") and Leelee Sobieski ("The Glass House," "Here on Earth") - all deliver decent performances perfectly suited for the genre and what's asked of them, with Zahn - as usual - coming off as the most fun to behold.

It certainly helps that the characters are likable - if not completely fleshed out or three-dimensional all of the time - and that we worry - to varying degrees depending on the situation - about their well-being. Some debate has sprung up about the identity of the crazed trucker's voice, but whatever the case, its gravelly intonations are also quite effective in establishing the right mood.

Beyond a few logistical and logical errors - some concerning the steps the trucker takes to terrorize the trio in a way that probably only happens in the movies - and the fact that the film treads upon some familiar grounds and retreads previous material, it still works rather well in its effort to be a white knuckle ride. Nothing particularly special but another good example of straightforward and effective storytelling, "Joy Ride" works in what it's trying to be and accomplish and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 20, 2001 / Posted October 5, 2001

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