Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at 2001’s Joy Ride…
Terror on the highways. A cat and mouse chase as unsuspecting folk wending their merry way across the long American highways, get targeted by a mysterious stalker. It worked in Duel when Steven Spielberg announced himself as a film-maker who might just be something special. It’s a starting point that has worked many times since, as these cross country journeys turn into a nightmare. Memorable examples include The Hitcher or Breakdown.
In 2001, Paul Walker had suddenly found himself launched as something of an in demand lead in genre cinema. The Fast and Furious would become a huge hit, spawning a franchise that still goes today. Later in the year saw the release of Joy Ride (or Road Kill in the UK). It proved fairly successful. Being kind of pigeonholed in the thriller genre, with pinches of horror, it was certainly lower budget, requiring less of a box office impact to prove profitable. Whilst it wouldn’t make the same waves as Walker’s car film, it would still prove popular. To critics it was largely taken in good spirits as a pleasing slice of B movie hokum, elevated by its cast, direction and a fun, if often illogical, script. Who needs logic though, in this kind of film? It would prove popular on the home market, and gain enough cult fandom to warrant a couple of sequels (albeit coming some time after the first).
The road movie thriller/horror is fun when it’s pulled off successfully. The nature of the sparse settings, perpetual motion and inescapable foe provide a great B movie blueprint to follow. Here, Paul Walker and Steve Zahn play brothers making their way across country to meet Zenna (Leelee Sobieski). Lewis (Walker) hides feelings for his female friend, whilst Fuller (Zahn) is in constant need to be mischievous. As the brothers travel to meet Zenner, they begin toying with their CB radio, picking up a line with a trucker known only as Rusty Nail. Fuller persuades his reluctant younger brother to pose as a woman with the handle Candy Cane, and so Fuller’s prank is pulled. It backfires of course and then the rising stakes begin and get progressively sillier. The film is also notable for one of its screenwriters, a certain J.J. Abrams. There’s indeed a certain verve and sense of fun about the film, and a reverence to Hitchcock and Spielberg (among others) that scream Abrams (who by this point was well into his screenwriting career, but not quite up to his launch as all round auteur).
For me, films like this have to embrace the trashy elements and make something rollicking. Do we need logic at every turn? Does it make sense that the two brothers, after (wrongly) assuming a truck driver at a rest stop is their pursuer, flee in panic and Lewis absent mindedly leaves his MasterCard behind, upon which said red herring trucker chases them off road, just to hand the card back? It’s daft, but like the faceless trucker forever catching up with Dennis Weaver in Duel, or Rutger Hauer almost becoming a nightmarish figure of horror in The Hitcher, dialling up the thrills and twists at the expense of logic, proves more enjoyable. At heart these are chase films and maintaining interest and tension is key. If you think of a fast food burger having a ceiling of quality, it’s a lower ceiling than a filet mignon, but hitting your bar, even if it’s a little lower, can provide great entertainment.
Director John Dahl was well established and provided the requisite nous to keep the film driving forward, maintaining engagement. Additionally, the set piece moments prove enjoyable, suitably outlandish in places and there’s an air of mystique about the film’s villain (never seen clearly, and voiced by Ted Levine) that offers a little playful ambiguity. Marco Beltrami, in the composers chair channels Bernard Herrmann with a suitably evocative score. The biggest strength of this enjoyable ride, lies in Walker and Zahn who have a good on-screen chemistry and maintain an endearing likeability. Sobieski joins proceedings somewhere in the middle of the long chase and is an engaging, if slightly underutilised presence. Some complications that arise later, when Rusty Nail kidnaps Charlotte (Jessica Bowman), stray logic perhaps too far (if only because we’ve had nowhere near enough pre-establishment of her to consider her safe return an essential mission for the three leads).
20 years on and the film is venturing into forgotten territory. Not quite forgotten classic perhaps, but for what it is, it’s very effective and still proves an enjoyable and increasingly underrated watch. It’s a lot of fun, and when you’re on a joy ride, maybe that’s the goal.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/