It started as a joke. Now the joke is on them.
Continuing the fine tradition of open road thrillers such as Duel, Breakdown, and The Hitcher comes Director John Dahl's (The Last Seduction) Joy Ride. Starring Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas, Out Of Sight) and Paul Walker (The Fast And The Furious) as a pair of estranged brothers with Leelee Sobieski (Eyes Wide Shut) thrown in as the obligatory hot girlfriend, Joy Ride combines its thrills with quite a few laughs. This brisk and fun ride arrives on DVD in fine special edition form courtesy of Fox.
Facts of the Case
Fuller and Lewis Thomas (Zahn and Walker) are brothers who have never been close. Looking to bridge the gulf between the two, Lewis goes out of his way to do his older brother a favor. On a road trip to see Lewis' true love, the two buy a CB radio to help break up the boredom of the trip. Being the troublemaker that he is, Fuller gets his younger brother to impersonate a girl and flirt with a trucker going by the handle of "Rusty Nail." Setting Rusty Nail up to meet someone that Fuller has had an altercation with at a local motel, things begin to spin quickly out of control when the trucker does not like what he finds in room 17. Rusty Nail is not the kind of man that enjoys being scorned or made fun of. Thus begins his hunt to follow and seek revenge upon the men who have caused him shame. It's a cross country trip of violence and mayhem, and one that is bound to end badly for all involved. It was meant to be harmless fun, but this Joy Ride has turned into anything but.
Say what you will about contrivances and suspension of belief, but when done properly, movies like Joy Ride are a lot of fun. Sure, it owes quite a bit to all the movies mentioned above, but Joy Ride is able to stand on its own feet for a couple of reasons.
First of all, there is the sense of dark humor sprinkled throughout the entire film that makes the jolts all the more effective. It's this undercurrent of humorous macabre that highlights most of John Dahl's most effective work. After all, if it was good enough for Alfred Hitchcock, then it should be good enough for Dahl. Dahl has obviously learned other tricks from the Master of Suspense and they also serve him well. I like how the film leaves its evil mostly faceless throughout the movie while maintaining a sense of turning-the-screws paranoia. This crispness of execution not only put me in the mind of upper tier Hitchcock, but also the best films of John Frankenheimer. This is lean, mean, and no-nonsense filmmaking.
Joy Ride is also effective in the way a great deal of the horror is left unseen and only imagined. There is in fact a restraint to the level of gore the movie is willing to show that I find admirable. It's nice to find a modern thriller that is certainly very hip in its writing but so traditional in execution. Like those movies of yesteryear, Joy Ride is a flick that asks those watching to unplug their brains for a while and just let the ride happen.
With that said, bear in mind that a great deal of the movie does not hold up well to scrutiny but because its so tightly assembled there is little time to ask nagging questions like, "How does one sneak up on people in the middle of an open field when driving a big rig?" or "How does one know exactly where your prey is if you are driving around in said big rig and are unable to maintain visual contact?" Like I said, just kick back and don't think about stuff like that. Rather, marvel at the way Dahl and writers Tarver and Abrams are constantly upping the ante for their protagonists. The trio move from one embarrassing complication to another deadly scenario with the greatest of movie ease and its pretty fun to watch.
It also helps when your lead is Steve Zahn. Zahn is not a name a lot of people may have heard, but he is one of my favorite actors working in film today. He has the edge needed to make his character work. As written, his Fuller Thomas is not a likable fellow, but as played by Zahn, the darkness is present but so is a softer, puppy dog quality that makes him difficult to hate. In fact, if you go back and look at the movie as written you begin to see how one-dimensional the characters really are, yet its a tribute to the performances that they come off as well as they do. One particular surprise is Paul Walker. It was his presence that kept me away from Joy Ride in the theaters. Rather than being his usual bland self, here he manages to shine while giving his role much needed depth. It's certainly a step in the right direction for him as an actor, and I hope to see more work from him that is this good. Joy Ride also takes a makes a move into positive territory by offering up Leelee Sobieski as the female lead, Venna. No screaming or shrinking violet, her character is smart and able. It is also fairly obvious that she is the smartest of the three people in the car. She still manages to be the film's damsel in distress, but like so much else of the film, it is done in a way that does not insult anyone's intelligence. She comes off as sexy and strong, but also very human.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the vocal talents of the movie's "Rusty Nail," actor Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs). It is his voice and his voice alone that pervades and perverts everything within Joy Ride. As part of the extras, we are given an opportunity to hear other actors auditioning for the role. None of the others do the role justice and a great deal of the tension to be found here is due directly to Levine.
Speaking of the extras, Fox has labeled this disc a special edition and there are quite a few goodies to be had. The best of the bunch are the deleted and alternate endings for the movie. It speaks well for test screenings, because the final product was indeed the best choice. Still, it's great to see the evolution of an ending as clearly presented as it is here. There is also a deleted scene that basically amounts to an extension of an existing part of the movie. This is another exclusion that I think works to the benefit of the final product. All of these scenes come with optional commentary. Speaking of, commentary is something that the DVD of Joy Ride has in spades. Not content with one track or even two, there are three commentary tracks to be found. The first is with Director John Dahl, the second with the movie's writers, Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams (Alias), while the third is with actors Sobieski and Zahn. It's funny, but if you read the hype on the back of the case, you would think this was one big commentary with all of the above people, and honestly I don't know why it wasn't done that way. Separately, all of the commentaries have their moments, but if they had been edited together I feel it would have been a much stronger presentation. Call it less being more, but by the time I got around to the final commentary track, I was really getting tired of the movie. I suppose if you are pushed for time the Dahl track would be the one I would go with, but even there be aware there are several gaps in the discussion.
I already mentioned the vocal audition part, also included is a worthless featurette, the movie's trailer, and a feature called "More Than One Joy Ride." In a nutshell, this is a feature similar to New Line's infinifilm or the "follow the white rabbit" from The Matrix.
All in all, this a pretty loaded special edition and with it Fox continues its streak of great discs.
On the technical end, the video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and for as well as it is staged, I can't imagine this movie being nearly as effective if shown in pan & scan. Overall, the transfer is a good one. It should be noted that there are a few instances of edge enhancement present and they take away from what is, generally, a pretty detailed image. Colors, shadows, and lighting are reproduced well, and it is the cinematography of Jeff Jur (Panic) that is one of the strongest calling cards of Joy Ride. There is amble mood on display and edge enhancement aside, the transfer does not let it down. The thing that I found odd about the transfer was the quality of the source material. It was nothing disturbing or distracting, but there were more than a few visible instances of both dirt and nicks. Grain was present but that is to be expected in a movie shot 2.35:1, but otherwise I would have expected pristine conditions for a film this new.
On the sound end, we are treated to an aggressive 5.1 mix that really adds to the level of tension. Quite a lot of the movie is centered in the front three speakers, but the soundscape moves around when it needs to and there is an effective bass clearly present. The sound is well mixed with effects, dialogue, and Marco Beltrami's effective score never fighting to be heard. It's a very good mix with quite a lot of space and it holds up better than does the video end of things.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you can get past the leaps of logic this movie requires of its audience, then I think most will find Joy Ride to be an effective way to kill an hour and a half. There are noted problems with the video and all the commentary tracks are a bit of overkill, but this is still a first rate DVD of a very good B-grade movie.
If you like your thrillers to be a combination of both style AND substance, then I think this Joy Ride is a trip worth taking. This is a movie that in its own way looks back to a simpler time of making movies. A time when people and situations mattered more than blood and guts. Speaking for myself, I hope it's a trend that continues.
I don't know if I would call this movie a "buy it," but it certainly deserves strong consideration for a good evening's rental.
Director John Dahl and everyone connected with Joy Ride are free to speed on their way. Fox has the charges leveled against them thrown out with the hopes for more quality discs in glorious widescreen. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director John Dahl
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