The Joy Ride Series
Joy Ride (October 6/08)
Though hardly in the same league as filmmaker John Dahl's previous jaunts into thriller territory - ie 1992's Red Rock West, 1994's The Last Seduction, etc - Joy Ride ultimately comes off as a sporadically uneven yet thoroughly entertaining B-movie that boasts a number of genuinely exhilarating sequences and set-pieces. Paul Walker stars as Lewis Thomas, a straight-laced college student who agrees to a cross-country trip after a friend (Leelee Sobieski's Venna) reveals that she doesn't have a ride home. Lewis' plans take a hit after his troublesome brother (Steve Zahn's Fuller) tags along for the journey, with the siblings' decision to taunt a psychotic trucker (Ted Levine's Rusty Nail) eventually resulting in an increasingly deadly game of cat and mouse. It's worth noting that Joy Ride is never quite as predictable as one might've anticipated, as screenwriters Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams prove fairly adept at confounding the viewer's expectations at virtually every turn - something that's particularly true of the mid-film stretch in which it seems as though the threat has been neutralized. There's consequently little doubt that the tension level does tend to ebb and flow throughout the proceedings, which admittedly ensures that the three central figures are afforded plenty of character-building sequence (ie there reaches a point at which one can't help but root for their survival). In addition to Levine's chilling voice work as Rusty Nail, Joy Ride undoubtedly benefits from the inclusion of an unexpectedly enthralling climax - which proves instrumental in cementing the movie's place as an above-average contemporary thriller.
Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (October 8/08)
A slight cut above its direct-to-video horror brethren, Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead nevertheless suffers from many of the same problems that one tends to associate with low-budget efforts of this ilk - including scarcely-developed characters, derivative storytelling, and a sporadic emphasis on needless elements. The film follows four fun-loving youths (Nicki Aycox's Melissa, Laura Jordan's Kayla, Nick Zano's Bobby, and Kyle Schmid's Kyle) as they embark on a road trip to Las Vegas, with their ill-advised decision to steal a car from a seemingly abandoned garage placing them squarely within the sights of a vicious trucker known only as Rusty Nail (Mark Gibbon). There's little doubt that Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead suffers from the absence of Ted Levine's voice this time around, as the actor's exceedingly menacing delivery certainly stands as one of the more overtly indelible horror-movie performances in recent years. And while Gibbon's Levine impression is actually pretty decent, the actor is simply unable to capture the goosebump-inducing nuances of Levine's sinister take on the character. It probably doesn't help that screenwriters James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin seem to be going out of their way to transform Rusty Nail into a run-of-the-mill psychopath, as the shadowy figure's rationale for pursuing the four central characters is awfully weak - while his newfound penchant for torture smacks of a desperate attempt to ape the success of the Saw and Hostel series. The uniform lack of compelling protagonists only exacerbates the film's various problems, with Schmid - trapped within the confines of an obnoxious emo douchebag - offering up an unusually irritating performance that effectively forces the viewer to root for his demise (his hopelessly bland costars don't fare much better). Despite such deficiencies, however, Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead basically comes off as a watchable (if entirely forgettable) piece of work that'll probably have a more positive effect on grizzled horror junkies.
Joy Ride 3 (June 23/14)
The Joy Ride series hits a significant speed bump with this colossally ineffective entry, with the familiar narrative following a group of friends who run afoul of vicious trucker Rusty Nail (Ken Kirzinger). It's clear immediately that Joy Ride 3 bears few attributes designed to remind the viewer of the comparatively stellar original film, as writer/director Declan O'Brien has transformed Rusty Nail into a hopelessly generic horror-movie villain - with the character's penchant for Jigsaw-like death traps certainly going a long way towards cementing this vibe. The movie's less-than-accomplished atmosphere, which is established in its thoroughly uninvolving prologue, is compounded by O'Brien's emphasis on underdeveloped, one-dimensional characters, and it's clear that one's efforts at working up any interest in or sympathy for the protagonists' exploits fall flat on a recurring basis. It doesn't help, either, that O'Brien has infused the narrative with a distinctly paint-by-numbers sort of feel, as the filmmaker's screenplay contains virtually all of the touchstones that one might've anticipated (and predicted) - including an appearance by a crazy local who warns the heroes away from Rusty Nail's stretch of highway. The anticlimactic finish confirms Joy Ride 3's place as a particularly objectionable straight-to-video horror sequel, and it's ultimately impossible not to hope that this marks the end of Rusty Nail's run-of-the-mill endeavors.