Once-reliable vehicle finds itself running on empty.


directed by John Dahl with Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, and Leelee Sobieski opens Oct. 5 at Meridian, Metro, and others

GENRE FUSION can represent the last exhausted gasp of a worn-out Hollywood formula—or two of them, to be precise. What generally results are disasters like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966) or Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958), where mismatched stock characters converge, battle, then wait sheepishly to shuffle off stage and collect their checks. (Introducing made-up schlock films on SCTV, Joe Flaherty scored the same point with his vampire who howled like a werewolf.) Melding together slasher flick and road movie, Joy Ride is unfortunately no classic of bad cinema; it's merely an average popcorn picture where the howls bear Count Floyd's same trace of desperation.

Hence, we have an upright college lad (The Fast and the Furious' Paul Walker) traveling from Berkeley to Boulder after a detour to bail out his ne'er-do-well older brother (Happy, Texas' Steve Zahn). The two promptly pull a CB-radio prank on an unseen trucker with the handle Rusty Nail, which goes very, very wrong. Mr. Nail spends the rest of Ride hidden but murderously intent on crushing the two scared siblings with his 18-wheeler—or worse.

Sound familiar? Readers who exclaim, "Hey, I've already seen this movie and it was called Duel," are only half-correct. Steven Spielberg's 1971 TV drama is the obvious template for Ride, with younger, more photogenic bait in place of Dennis Weaver. The anonymous, psychotic trucker and desolate locations are the same, but director John Dahl is no Spielberg when it comes to either action or the menacing lulls between squealing tires and crunching sheet metal. He's no hack, but has been succumbing to ever more muddled scripts since his 1993 breakthrough Red Rock West (which he co-wrote). The lean, spare stories of the desert suit him better than Hollywood, whose screenwriters have here supplied him only with familiar clich鳮

Indeed, Ride simply reprises the sort of slasher-flick conventions that the Scream series has so ably lampooned. Yet the kids in jeopardy here only total three (including The Glass House's Leelee Sobieski as the token girl), which hardly seems a sufficient body count for your usual knife-wielding maniac, and they lack the sarcasm and self-aware wit of their Scream counterparts. Mr. Nail periodically calls to terrorize our dim- witted trio (via CB rather than cell phone), but Ride can't pull off the mixture of blood and asphalt.

Because the movie pointedly leaves itself open to sequels, Joy Ride 2's future premise is perfectly obvious: Put the three leads in a small boat to hunt a great white shark. They're just dumb enough to try it.

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