That’s funny, back in 2001 Paul Walker seemed like a pretty boy teen star, a jock from VARSITY BLUES, so even though I always kinda liked him (and defended him from the savage hatred of the Ain’t It Cool talkbacks) he was probly the reason I didn’t take JOY RIDE entirely seriously, didn’t give it proper credit as a really solid thriller. I would’ve told you the movie was good, but I would’ve thrown a “ha ha, it’s actually” on front of that. Now I’m not as self conscious, and now Walker is the specific reason I’m giving it a long overdue re-watch. With his last movie coming out on Friday I thought it would be a good time to take a look at a few of his other roles in tribute.
See, he was a pretty boy, and he never did turn into an actor of great range. But here, in the same year he graduated to cop roles in THE FAST AND FURIOUS (which he probly got because Rob Cohen had directed him in THE SKULLS, and which came out about 3 months before this), he could also still play a youth. He turns his air of nice guy innocence toward a leading man role, which in this case is mostly about fear and problem-solving. How do we get the fuck out of here? How do we get this guy to leave us alone? Problems like that.
This is a road movie stalker like DUEL, ROAD GAMES or THE HITCHER, but for the SCREAM floating-head-poster era. Walker plays Lewis, a hopelessly smitten college kid driving cross country to get home during a break. Along the way he will pick up his high school friend/long distance crush Venna (THE WICKER MAN‘s Leelee Sobieski). But then he gets word that his fuckup older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, A PERFECT GETAWAY) is in jail and nobody else feels sorry enough for him to get him out, so Lewis goes 500 miles out of his way to post bail. Don’t ever do that, the movie will soon teach us.
The brothers end up on a road trip together, and though Zahn was considerably older than Walker (which explains why they haven’t seen each other in years) he’s the immature troublemaker of the two. He buys a used CB radio which he uses to get info about speed traps but also to do wacky voices and annoy random truck drivers. He calls it “a prehistoric internet,” which makes him a troll. He eggs Lewis into joining in, like little kids doing dumb prank phone calls or ordering people pizzas. Lewis is hesitant or uncomfortable but gives in and sees the childish humor of it.
Unfortunately they pick the wrong fucking individual to prehistoric-catfish. His CB handle is Rusty Nail and he’s the uncredited voice of Ted Levine (who was also in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS). They humiliate the guy too much by setting him up for a late night rendezvous with a jerk they run into at a hotel (Kenneth White, voice of Fisherman #2, ROVER DANGERFIELD). I would say “humiliate the poor guy” except it’s impossible to have pity for him when you see how he reacts to being wronged. First he kills the guy at the hotel (by ripping his entire lower jaw off!), even though that guy was a victim of the prank himself. Then he stalks and attacks our prankers, elaborately terrorizing them with psychological torment, abduction of loved ones, etc. I don’t mean this as a dig on the profession of truck driving, but this guy has an extraordinary talent for on-the-spot planning and executing that I think could serve him better in many other lines of work.
That brings me to one of the reasons this works. It’s that great class tension trick. These aren’t spoiled rich kids, their resources are limited, but Fuller is clearly turning his nose up to the working man when he does his fake southern accent on the CB. Ha ha, these dumb hick truck drivers, I’m gonna fuck with them. That adds an extra coating of discomfort on top of the tension of Lewis knowing what he just did was mean and instantly regretting it. Then for an extra bump there’s a scene where Fuller parks in a handicapped spot when he’s paying for the hotel room. Lewis tells him not to, and he scoffs and says he’s only going to be a minute. It doesn’t become significant, it’s just a reminder of what kind of person we’re dealing with here, so entitled and “the rules don’t apply to me” that he can’t park one spot over rather than leave his brother in the car feeling like a piece of shit.
There are a bunch of great and suspenseful set pieces. One of the most intense is when they’re in the hotel room hearing Rusty Nail’s attempted booty call go down. We’re just watching the brothers listening to the wall. The voices on the other side are too hard to make out. Good use of the “leaving it to the imagination” approach.
Alot of the scariness comes from hearing his voice but not seeing his face, even when the camera’s in the room with him. I don’t remember thinking this at the time, but it has a bunch in common with SCREAM. It’s this mean, disembodied voice threatening them from somewhere nearby, unseen, but making it clear he sees them. Back then we just associated SCREAM with movie references and meta type business and so-called “WB actors,” named for the teen oriented TV shows on the network that Warner Brothers had at the time, and which I guess Walker shared many qualities with, though he was never on Dawson’s Creek. We didn’t pay as much attention to this type of suspense technique which SCREAM didn’t invent but did use really well. And so does JOY RIDE.
It also sounds alot like SCREAM because it has the same composer, Marco Beltrami. I think it could stand to be a little more subtle, but to be fair this sound was pretty new at the time and plays more generic a decade plus later.
I think there’s also a little bit of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER in there in the fact that the kids are guilty of doing something that caused them to be targeted for revenge, and at least one of them feels regret and shame and a certain sense of maybe deserving it. So that adds some uneasiness there.
This small cast is very effective, especially Zahn, who is funny enough to be a complete ass but without me totally hating him. During the climax he does a terrified run as he’s trying to figure out what to do. In another context it could be comical, but here it’s completely convincing as fear.
And Walker is good playing shy, makes it believable that he hasn’t sealed the deal with this girl despite the handsome cut of his jib and the dreaminess of his eyes and what not. Most importantly I believe that his standard mode is the nice guy and not the doofus making dumb prank calls like his brother. I believe that he had to be pushed into it and then instantly felt bad about it.
When choosing a thumbnail for this I purposely didn’t pick a shot inside the car, even though that’s where most of the movie takes place. Although I had no problem watching him be terrorized by vehicles in the movie, taken out of context it felt a little ghoulish. It seems a little ironic that he died in a fiery car crash in real life and so much of his legacy is these vehicular mayhem movies. But it’s not really ironic. He loved doing stunts and being in fast cars and stuff. It just worked out badly. That’s the way it goes, I guess. I hope I can continue to enjoy the beginning and middle of his career without fixating on the tragic end.
The director is John Dahl, who was so impressive at the time ’cause he did RED ROCK WEST and THE LAST SEDUCTION. You’d think this mainstream hit would help launch him into bigger movies, but he kinda petered out in features before becoming a really prolific TV director (including episodes of Justified, The Americans, Terriers, Breaking Bad, etc.) One of the screenwriters had better luck though. J.J. Abrams, who wrote it with Clay Tarver, I do believe is directing the new STAR WARS movie thanks to the success of his TV show Felicity which I’ve heard alot of good buzz about being a show that men should not be embarrassed to watch. Might have to check it out some day. Apparently it shares with JOY RIDE a nostalgia for young love, people from small towns traveling long distance to take a shot at their high school crush, etc. But surprisingly more people are hit by speeding vehicles in Felicity. JOY RIDE goes a long way on the threat of violence and a few non-vehicular acts of brutality in hotel rooms. Also there’s a scene where the truck chases them through a cornfield, you see the top of the truck like a shark gliding through water.
Have you ever ntoiced that in movies turning bright lights on makes a loud clang? That happens here. It’s probly not as abused as the sounds used for knives unsheathing or bugs crawling, but it’s a common one.
Anyway, JOY RIDE is what somebody might call a cracking thriller. It’s a good concept, good cast, well directed set pieces that are very tense and uncomfortable. It has very tight, efficient storytelling. For example if you check the deleted scenes on the DVD there was an entire section where they go to the police and try to trace the call and get attacked in a police car driven by Walton Goggins (Justified). In the finished movie they just have him say he’ll kill his hostage if they go to the police. Their entire interaction with cops is Jim Beaver (Justified) yelling at them for the pain in the ass they caused him and telling them to get the fuck out of town.
JOY RIDE is a joy to take a ride with in my opinion would be one thing you could say about it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.