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Joy Ride

Starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker and LeeLee Sobieski
Screenplay by Clay Tarver & J.J. Abrams
Directed by John Dahl

IN SHORT: Best popcorn movie of the year. [Rated R for violence/terror and language. 96 minutes]

You can track the genre right back to Spielberg's TV movie Duel, a couple of decades back. Four wheels versus eighteen, "innocent driver" versus an anonymous trucker in a duel of wits and speed. In Joy Ride, at least, we get a very well written flick with believable characters, and brotherly rivalries that fall back on that old favorite, "who gets the girl?"

More to the point, if these battles are done right, you get yourself an hour and a half or more of terrific thrills and chills. All the while you'll be perched on the edge of your seat. Joy Ride is one of those few and far between popcorn movies that is far superior to almost everything it comes up against. Sure, this flick skids off the road of probability now and again and yes, it sets up a sequel (we hate that) but superior popcorn flicks demand a little leniency, which we're more than about to give.

Ah, young love, first "real" love, the kind that is unrequited but just about to burst at the seams. Case in point, college freshmen Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) and gal pal Venna (LeeLee Sobieski). He's at Berkeley and she's at U Colorado. Both are facing a quick plane ride home to New Jersey at term's end. Venna wishes she could take the couple of extra days to decompress before parking with her elders. Lewis, eager to impress, cashes in his full fare plane ticket and buys a 1971 Chrysler Imperial, a white boat on wheels, thinking that a couple of days on the road could make a fine relationship. The only kink in that plan is that Lewis' brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has been busted in Salt Lake City. Paul does his family duty and bails out the brother he hasn't seen in five years.

The pair head to Colorado to pick up Venna. At some truckstop in the middle of nowhere, Fuller makes a deal for an old CB radio. Soon, "Black Sheep" (Fuller) and "Momma's Boy" (Lewis) are tearing up the road as a one car convoy. Fuller prods Lewis to join him in a practical joke on the anonymous truckers who share the road with them. They sucker in an older, lonely sounding trucker sporting the handle "Rusty Nail" and convince him to rendezvous with a smokey voiced Candy Corn (Lewis doing the femme voice) at an out of the way motel. The prank almost gets an innocent victim killed.

What's worse, "Rusty Nail" figured out which car was pulling the gag. We don't have the slightest idea how he figured out this point but, once you accept it, all the other pieces of this stalker's game fall neatly into place as the never-seen "Rusty Nail" works his revenge on the brothers. Once you think he's had his fill, you discover that the Nail hasn't even begun to have his fun.

And Venna isn't all that thrilled to be stuck in the middle of it all. She's got a personal stake in all of this, too, which we're not going to spill.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Joy Ride, he would have paid . . .


Ignoring Rusty, it's a rare movie which can take a simple, usually done to death premise and inject it with a whopping dose of cinematic B-12. It would be easy enough just to have scared kids being chased by a monster truck, but we get fully formed characters and relationships far beyond what we expected. Kudos all around.

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