Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) is a university student pining for his girlfriend Venna (Leelee Sobieski), and over his latest phone call to her he makes up his mind to go and visit her, so buys a second hand car dating from 1971 to drive on the journey. However, he also hears that his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) has been jailed again, so must make a detour to pick him up and release him. Fuller was always a troublemaker, and as they drive across the desert highways he begins to wind up Lewis, forcing him to lose his temper, therefore Fuller buys a CB radio to pass the time and divert attention away from himself. However, they will both regret their purchase when a prank goes wrong...
Joy Ride was also known as Roadkill in Britain since the original phrase had a different connotation there, although in that respect it might have been a more apt title, irony apart. It was one of those movies which owed a strong debt to other, past hits or cult flicks, in this case Steven Spielberg's breakthrough television work Duel and the eighties favourite The Hitcher; it was worth pointing out, with that in mind, that this effort was far more satisfying than the actual remake of The Hitcher which appeared a short time later. In fact, there may have been a second hand air about the plot, but screenwriters Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams breathed new life into it with a script that went gradually over the top.
So gradually that you were able to go with it, and it was only after it had reached its denouement that it crossed your mind not only was this hard to believe, but you had been left with some unanswered questions as well. Oddly, this didn't detract from a thriller which moved regularly towards horror, not that it was hugely gory but it did flirt with savagery as one trucker Fuller hears on his new CB takes his fancy, and that prank ensues. As with many a chiller with a payback for transgression theme, the joke gets way out of hand for the troublemaker persuades his brother to adopt a woman's voice and lead this gravel-voiced driver on (Ted Levine provided the tones of "Rusty Nail"), eventually setting him up at a motel with an asshole traveler who has annoyed Fuller.
All the way through Lewis has been trying to rein Fuller in, but he did comply with his trickster wishes and for that they both must be punished - and not only them, as Rusty's road rage proves some people simply don't have a sense of humour and therefore feel like lashing out at everyone in their path when they are the butt of cruel humour. The weird thing is that you can understand nobody likes to be led on, so you really should be gaining something from seeing the siblings humiliated, but then again you cannot accept that Rusty's resorting to brutal violence is a terrific idea, leaving the viewer in an interesting position. Events come to a head when after a whole night of being freaked out, the brothers are almost crushed by Rusty's truck in a back road.
After that it seems as if a truce is called as an apology was all that was needed, but the Thomases' behaviour has gotten them noticed by someone they really shouldn't have crossed, and as we're only halfway through the movie it's perhaps little surprise that once Lewis has picked up Venna their tormentor has been watching with near-supernatural ability to follow and guess their next move. Here the threat of assault grows to a threat of actual murder, and as they have no idea what Rusty looks like, having only heard his rumbling tones, the trio are not sure of who they should be looking out for. Joy Ride was one of the excursions into film by powerful television producer Abrams before he began raising the ire of hard to please fans with his Star Trek and Star Wars franchise reboots, and if nothing else proved he knew his way around a simple but effective suspense piece. Walker and Zahn made a likeable team, with the former comfortable behind the wheel in obvious complement to the Fast & Furious movies, and there was a neat seventies mood to the work. Music by Marco Beltrami.