A quarter-century after "Convoy," C.W. McCall's smash novelty single, there's still a generous spirit out there for our 18-wheeled good buddies. But consider the less catchy flip side of that single, "Long, Lonesome Road," and its lament about a maddeningly grim and endless horizon. It's within this uniquely American wasteland that Joy Ride gets its kicks and delivers its shocks. Stripped down quite proudly to the sparest of plots, this is the tale of two mischievous lads who play a prank on a trucker via a CB radio, thereby landing themselves and some unfortunate innocents in a peck of trouble. Once they incur the wrath of an itinerant madman, the travelers are forced to flee for their lives, and assorted acts of terror and violence ensue.
Precursors abound for this sort of thing -- most specifically Duel and The Hitcher -- but somehow this project manages to be both astoundingly derivative and reasonably entertaining at the same time. Much credit is due director John Dahl, who deftly overhauls the pulpy, ridiculous screenplay by J.J. Abrams and Clay Tarver. Loads of distracting trash and "audience-relatable" material are contained herein, but Dahl's eye gives every scene a gritty elegance. Following dalliances with Matt Damon playing poker (in Rounders) and Ray Liotta jonesing for spinal fluid (in Unforgettable), Dahl now returns to his familiar realm of frontier justice, giving us a villain who could eat Dennis Hopper and Linda Fiorentino for breakfast.
But first we get Leelee Sobieski in her underwear, playing a college frosh named Venna, who provides ample reason for our hero, Lewis (Paul Walker), to do stupid things. Freshman year has come to a close, and Lewis decides to hock his plane ticket for a '71 Chrysler, in order to drive home from Berkeley to the Midwest; he stops to pick up Venna in Colorado for what he hopes will be a romantic adventure. However, since Lewis is one of those archetypal nice guys upon whom the world cheerfully treads, he must first team up with an obnoxious id in the form of his ne'er-do-well older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), freshly sprung from the clink in Utah.
In the movie's most ludicrous yet logistically vital scene, Fuller decides to invest in a CB radio -- "a prehistoric Internet" -- for Lewis's car. Tidily establishing himself and his brother with the handles Black Sheep and Mama's Boy, Fuller decides to play a little joke on a creepy, laconic fellow who calls himself Rusty Nail (the voice of Matthew Kimbrough). He coerces Lewis into pretending he's a hot-to-trot woman named Candy Cane, who's in desperate need of a good time: "Get him all worked up, then in the middle of it, say, 'I'm a dude!'" Fuller instructs.
But Lewis allows the prank to get out of hand, and the boys invite Rusty Nail to visit Candy Cane in the room next to theirs at the seedy Lone Star Motel. Since the room's actual occupant is a pugnacious (and conveniently racist) bastard, the boys figure they're in for a giggle or two. The yuks swiftly turn to yucks the next morning, however, when their nasty neighbor turns up with his jaw ripped off. After taking their licks from the law -- almost always a debilitating presence in stories like these -- the brothers set off to fetch Venna as planned, but the unhappily jilted Mr. Nail has other plans in store for them.
For a while, it's hard to know what to make of this hodgepodge. The opening titles and final confrontation smack of Se7en, the bogeyman possesses the stealth and omnipresence of the faceless slashers of days gone by, and the jokey miasma of middle-American dread is pure Coens. Yet somehow, Dahl's road to ruin develops its own engaging consistency as it rolls along.