After Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) buys a car to pick up would-be girlfriend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) from college in Colorado, he learns that his brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), was jailed on a misdemeanor charge in Salt Lake City. So he decides to pick up his brother first. During a pit stop, Fuller has a mechanic install a CB radio. They joke around with truckers, going so far as posing as a woman and setting up a false date with one. When the prank turns to tragedy, the trucker seeks revenge.
For the most part, Joy Ride is an enjoyable horror/thriller. It is loaded with tension and it's easy for viewers to picture themselves in the scenario, as it's relatively realistic. The horror is formed from everyday situations, where just a couple bad decisions can lead one into the sights of a madman.
However, I had to subtract two points for something I very rarely subtract points for--"stupid decisions" on the part of protagonists. Of course, some people think that horror films are primarily based on characters making stupid decisions, but in my view of the genre, even if such actions are clichéd, filmmakers generally justify such decisions at least in the context of the film. Too often in Joy Ride, writers Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams, along with director John Dahl, make little attempt at justification. Why don't they just turn the CB off? Why don't they just ignore the villain? Why don't they call the police? Why don't they stay in places that are more populated (like the truckstop)? Why do they keep trusting the villain? While there are some cursory answers to a few of these questions, taken together, you keep wondering, "In the film's world, how can someone so stupid be in college?"
One possible answer is suggested by the Joy Ride DVD. It contains a 29-minute alternate ending that thankfully has a bit of commentary from both the director and the writer. The alternate ending is just is good as the theatrical version, in my opinion, and tries to put a slightly more logical spin on the film. Our heroes do end up at a police station, with some police cooperation. However, it was apparently felt that this alternate (actually the original) ending "didn't work" and "didn't maintain tension". Abrams felt that involving the police more directly in the plot removed too much of the focus from our heroes. Dahl also states that he thought there was too much character development in the original ending. I beg to differ on all of those points. Although the revised ending has many positive aspects not found in the original--especially a Rube Goldberg-like scenario involving maximum, immediate risk and creating maximum tension, the original ending may have worked better overall in my opinion.
But Joy Ride is good enough overall to transcend stupid decisions on the part of the characters. If seen as a sequence of high-tension scenarios, where logical plot connectors are only secondary to creating thrilling rides, Joy Ride almost deserves an A (a 9 in my rating system). There isn't a scenario in the film that's not smart and inventive in some way. The three principles--Walker, Zahn and Sobieski--give good performances, and the villain is masterfully done by Matthew Kimbrough (who provided the body), Ted Levine (who provided the bizarre, creepy voice), and Dahl, who wisely shows glimpses of him, but only glimpses. The villain is almost supernatural in his cleverness, strength and obsession. It's just too bad that we haven't had a sequel yet.