Joy Ride makes trip into film noir

A character-driven thriller that combines the right proportions of taut angst and comic relief thanks to the direction of John Dahl, Joy Ride is a nicely acted serving of classic film noir.

Writers Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams fashion a clever variant on the vintage 1971 Steven Spielberg TV movie Duel, although steering clear of the rivalry between two brothers for the love of the sweetheart.

Assisted by his frequent collaborators, cinematographer Jeff Jur and production designer Robert Pearson, Dahl utilizes a signature color scheme of grainy, washed out yellow-browns and harsh blue-green neon that effectively conjures up the requisite film noir look.

But unlike Steven Spielberg’s 30-year-old cult classic, Joy Ride (Fox) zigzags across the conventions of the genre, occasionally driving on the shoulders of black humor. It is a road movie for the way we process suspense today and very recognizably a work of Dahl, best known for The Last Seduction.

University of California at Berkley college student Lewis Thomas, played by Paul Walker (The Fast and The Furious), gets a refund on his plane ticket home and buys a used car so he can pick up his hope-to-be sweetheart Venna, played by the omnipresent actress Leelee Sobieski (The Glass House), in Boulder, Co. On his way he finds out his brother, Fuller, (Steve Zahn) is jailed in Salt Lake City. Lewis decides to bail him out.

At a road stop, bad-seed brother Fuller buys a CB radio and coaxes Lewis into playing a prank on a lonely, psychopathic trucker, somewhere out there in the dark of the heartland. This faceless trucker (unaccredited but with a voice similar to Ted Levine) then bloodily taunts, stalks and attempts to murder both the brothers.

Using a feminine voice, Lewis and Fuller set up the trucker by luring him to a roadside motel for a romantic rendezvous. The brothers give the trucker the number of the room next to them and eavesdrop when he shows up at midnight. There is a gruff salesman in that room who annoyed Fuller at check-in. They hear some ominous muffled sounds, report it to the manager who checks it out and says everything seems fine. They are horrified the next morning to discover police checking out the room next door; the salesman was found nearly dead on the highway.

It is not until after they pick up Venna that the real terror begins. The aggravated psychopath is seething with revenge, figures out what type of car the boys are driving and tries to destroy all three of the naive road trippers.

Joy Ride is an unabashedly sleazy thriller, but is fun and entertaining. It provides a nice change to see some focus on character development, and the actors play off each other nicely. For audiences looking for both a laugh and a scare this movie offers both.

Joy Ride is now in theaters.

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