What's the harm in playing a little practical joke on a lonely, sex-starved older trucker by disguising one's male voice as that of an available young woman, and using a bit of obsolete communications technology to set up a midnight rendezvous at a sleazy roadside motel? What could possibly go wrong with such a foolproof stunt, pulled off in so anonymous a fashion?
Plenty, as prankster siblings Lewis (Paul Thomas of "The Fast and the Furious") and Fuller (Steve Zahn of "Happy, Texas") discover not long into John Dahl's gripping, frightening "Joy Ride." Dahl, the filmmaker behind neo-noir gems "The Last Seduction" and "Red Rock West" teases viewers with some levity and lighthearted banter before strapping us in for a tense thrill ride. It makes for a bumpy, jumpy journey -- a carefully crafted, smartly paced excursion with a slam-bang conclusion that doesn't disappoint.
"Joy Ride" is satisfyingly spooky, if not entirely original: Yes, this film, co-written by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams (Armageddon), boasts its share of references to 1996's Breakdown, Steven Spielberg's 1971 Duel and even Stephen King's 1986 Maximum Overdrive. But it's a far creeper bit of road-trip horror than the recent Jeepers Creepers, which built its chills on blood, gore and the workings of an omniscient, all-powerful supernatural critter. Dahl's movie for the most part is rooted in the realm of the possible; the frights, as a result, are more palpable.
Lewis, a scholarship student at Berkeley, is smart enough to recognize trouble when he sees it coming. He faces it head-on anyway, agreeing to take a detour from his journey back East, during which he'll pick up Venna (Leelee Sobieski of The Glass House and Here on Earth), the object of his affections, at the University of Colorado. The side trip is a mission of mercy to meet big brother Fuller at a Salt Lake City jail, where he is being released on charges of disorderly conduct. Zahn, as the family's prodigal son, engages his whiny, annoying mode. "I'm different," he swears to his little brother. "I'm strong. I'm reformed."
Fuller, new leaf or not, is up to his old tricks, prying into his younger sibling's feelings -- platonic or amorous? -- for Venna and, on a whim, purchasing a CB radio for $40 at a truck stop. "This is like a prehistoric Internet or something," he says. Soon enough, scanning the bands, he stumbles onto a sad-sack trucker, publicly pining away for a certain someone. Fuller gives himself the handle of Black Sheep; Lewis calls himself Mama's Boy; and the two point Rusty Nail, a.k.a. the lonely trucker, in the direction of a fictitious sexy babe.
The two brothers, crashing at a motel for the evening, encounter a grumpy guest and decide to take their tomfoolery to the next level, concocting a meeting between Rusty Nail and the "woman" he's been flirting with over the radio waves. Disaster ensues, and the following day the troublemaking siblings are ordered to vacate the state. "This is like an old-fashioned Western," says the sheriff (Jim Beaver). "I want you out of Wyoming before the sun goes down."
The terrain indeed is reminiscent of an old Western, in terms of the loneliness of the wide, open spaces. The desolate highways, including a 300-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in northern Nevada, serve to underscore the isolation of the human prey in this extended cat-and-mouse game, which begins in earnest at the site of that would-be romantic gathering.
Dahl loosens the tension a bit as the boys arrive in Colorado to pick up the attractive Venna, and then the game is on again as the trucker reveals his ability to track their every move (his superduper surveillance expertise is the film's major flaw). The terror cranks up with an unexpected kidnapping, an object found in their trunk, a chase in the cornfields and a final showdown at a motel, involving a deadly booby trap.
By the time the last shot is fired, we're exhilarated, if a little exhausted. That's a good thing.