Three friends, Scott (Desi Arnaz Jr), John (Robert Carradine) and his girlfriend Susie (Melanie Griffith) are stuck in dead end jobs in Los Angeles and decide to take their chances and drive up north to Alaska, never looking back, to start a salmon fishing career. They manage to reach Alaska, but their plans don't go as well as they would have hoped: stopping off in a small town for the night, the spend a lot of cash on alcohol, only to find the next day their car has been broken into and the rest of their money has been stolen. It looks like they'll have to take yet more jobs that go nowhere to makes ends meet, and their dreams will have to wait.
Written by Peter Rainer and the director Joseph Ruben, Joyride was most notable for starring the children of famous people - Arnaz Jr is the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Carradine is the son of John Carradine, and Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren. None of them display an electrifying talent here, but do what the script requires of them, being naive, disappointed and living for the moment without thinking too clearly about the future; they are always sympathetic despite their faults. The northern scenery alternates between attractively green and picturesque, and grey, rainy and inhospitable, with Griffith patently shivering through one scene. It looks bloody freezing, even when the sun is out.
In the bar on their first night in Alaska, Susie is approached by a man who introduces himself as Frank Sanders (Tom Ligon), and offers her and her friends work. They don't think they'll need his help until the break-in the next day, so Scott and John end up working for Sanders on the pipeline, while Susie becomes a waitress. All the while their ambitions are gradually eroded, and eventually the fishing scheme is forgotten about, especially after an incident at the pipeline loses John and Scott their jobs. Scott had refused to allow expensive equipment to be stolen, little knowing that Sanders had sanctioned the theft, and soon the trio are deeply unpopular around town.
There's a hypocrisy to Scott, as we see when they take advantage of a robbery in a supermarket and wheel out a trolley full of stolen goods under the noses of security. But the difference between the gang and Sanders is that they steal to survive, as money grows scarce and they have trouble finding employment, pertinently after Scott is beaten up and they have to leave, not knowing where to go. They are reduced to eating dog food at one point, and desperation is not far behind. Previously, Scott had met a young woman who worked at the local payroll office, Cindy (Anne Lockhart, daughter of TV star June), who had tried to sell herself to him for the night, but he had turned her down.
When pissing contests don't bring them the money that they had hoped for, the trio rob the payroll office and, what do you know, Cindy is taken hostage when the cops show up. After being unsure of what to do with her, and she's not an entirely reluctant kidnap victim, they all hit on the bright idea of asking for a ransom to get enough to pursue that carefree existence that has thus far eluded them. For a film with the title "Joyride", there's not much joy to be had as we see youthful optimism thwarted at every turn, although there is an actual joyride when Scott and John steal Sanders' car. But watching it now, there is a nostalgic quality to the story and atmosphere, and aimless as it is, you hope for the best for the three main characters in their awkward attempts to get by. Funny how nobody notices that whenever a radio or jukebox is switched on, it's always E.L.O. that plays. Other music by Jimmie Haskell (which would sound more at home on Starsky and Hutch).