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Dahl hits a dead-end with childish Joy Ride

Joy Ride is the kind of story best told around the campfire to impressionable children high on a marshmallow sugar-rush and homesickness-fueled fear. Demonstrating a slippage of talent Herculean in its scope, John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, Rounders) has entered the hack phase of his career and made a bid for the bloated ironic-slasher market in this film loaded with the hokey just-around-the-corner shocks, unseen truck-driving bogeyman and cutie-pie protagonists that draw the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer set like maggots to fresh kill.

A blend of cliche-riddled slasher films and the puerile themes of hook-arm villains of summer camp legend, Joy Ride is a transitional thriller that bridges that kid-friendly plot with the sexuality-obsessed dynamics of teen-oriented chillers, where gender ambiguity, lust and sexual dares get churned up into one bloody, angst- filled nightmare.

The director of taut, acidly funny neo-noirs like the career-gal scare film The Last Seduction and the adultery-ain't-good-for-your-health Red Rock West, Dahl has returned to noir territory with this undistinguished thriller. Predictable, calculated and rewarding only for those who expect the worst of cheesy horror, Joy Ride is nothing like the nasty, recklessly thrilling wild rides of Dahl's black-hearted past.

A blandly pretty boy, Paul Walker, stars as Lewis Thomas, a love-struck college boy from the wrong side of the tracks (though he has the clean-cut, squared-off good looks of any middle American kid). Lewis can't pass up a tantalizing offer to road trip up to a crush's Colorado college to escort her back East for summer break. Leelee Soblieski, recently trumpeted as entering a new "adult" phase of her career by appearing in magazines displaying ample cleavage, is wasted in this drab, insipid film as Lewis' love interest, Venna. Her vulnerability and ethereal sophistication certainly enhance her role as a worldly rich girl but to meager ends in Dahl's dead-end vehicle.

On the way to pick up his posh sweetheart, Lewis has to bail his no-account brother Fuller (another wasted actor, the sweetly demonic Steve Zahn) out of jail in Salt Lake City for a DUI charge. A human whoopee cushion who goes for laughs and trouble just to see the surprised looks on people's faces, Fuller dares Lewis to bait lonely trucker Rusty Nail by impersonating a horny lot lizard named Candy Cane on their CB radio.

But sexual game-playing in such films generally blows up in one's face, and Lewis and Fuller soon find they have messed with the wrong trucker — one with a superhuman strength and a slasher monster's ability to be in many places at once. A Red Sovine hunk of big rig loneliness, Rusty Nail is transformed into a working-class force of vengeance. Joy Ride often reads as the fever dream of a yuppified nation whose greatest pre-WTC fear was a kind of Revenge of Wal-Mart in the form of a proletarian bogeymen wearing blue-collar garb.

Dahl's one unexpected twist on the horror film genre is moving the film's stomping ground from the swampy human-barbecue-making South to the cornfield West of Matthew Shepard and Boys Don't Cry hate crimes as the new national Other.

Fans of fast driving, general mayhem and faces blanching as they register the gravity of what they have done will get a certain kick out of Joy Ride. But those who have graduated from the sophomoric kicks of short-pants cinema will be left near comatose by this insipid highway ghost story.??