With the dusty Western noir Red Rock West (1993) and the fabulous The Last Seduction (1994), director John Dahl emerged as a fine "B" movie director in an age when action blockbusters had supposedly eradicated such distinctions. But Dahl's subsequent graduation to bigger budgets and more respectable projects with 1998's generic poker tale Rounders was an artistic regression, and now he's back to where he once belonged with the boilerplate cheapie Joy Ride.
This sardonically titled film is an entirely familiar mix of horror and noir, a road-bound thriller that consciously evokes Steven Spielberg's Duel as well as lesser antecedents such as The Hitcher and Breakdown. But Dahl's film brings its carbon-copy skeleton to life through often inspired directorial craftsmanship and characters (and performances) that are sharp and believable by present Hollywood standards.
The film's setup is deftly handled and thankfully swift, if a little unlikely. California college kid Lewis (Paul Walker, who also starred in this year's other highly entertaining "B" movie, The Fast and the Furious, although one that banked "A" box office) buys a beat-up car in order to pick up high school friend and unrequited love interest Venna (Leelee Sobieski) at her Colorado campus en route to their East Coast hometown for the summer. But before he leaves, Lewis finds out that his troubled older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, whose calculated goofiness balances nicely with Walker's bland good looks) has been arrested in Salt Lake City and reluctantly decides to pick him up on the way. Dahl is such an ace practitioner of these scuzzy little genre exercises that you almost suspect that he named his protagonists after bygone pulp-fiction auteurs Samuel Fuller (Pickup On South Street) and Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).
Fuller has a cheap CB radio installed in the car and gleefully (and recklessly) spouts CB lingo into the contraption, exclaiming to his brother that it's "like a prehistoric Internet." Fuller convinces Lewis to play along with a practical joke, aping a woman's voice under the name "Candy Cane" to get the faceless truckers on the road all hot and bothered. This prank works, with a trucker calling himself "Rusty Nail" responding to Candy Cane's call.
In order to pay back an obnoxious racist at the roadside motel where the brothers are staying, Fuller and Lewis make another Candy Cane call, asking Rusty Nail to meet them/her for a "romantic" rendezvous at the motel and giving him the room number of the aforementioned nemesis. What follows is the film's strongest scene, as Fuller and Lewis wait in the room next door, ears pressed against the wall, a cheap seascape painting between them, the lightning outside almost making the canvas' stormy mise-en- scène come to life. Rusty Nail is never seen and the conversation next door is heard only in muffles, but Dahl, along with his two actors, finds an eeriness here often lacking from modern scary movies. Unfortunately, it's a style that Dahl sometimes neglects throughout the rest of the film.
Joy Ride may be a return to Dahl's "B" roots, but it's a compromised return. At its best, Joy Ride makes sparkling use of its seamy, intimate interiors, the shoddy roadside motel rooms and the interior of the car, where the disembodied voice of Rusty Nail, accompanied only by the bloody-red glow of the CB volume levels, is extremely discomforting. But Dahl also succumbs to the sadism and sensationalism that tend to mar modern Hollywood thrillers, devoting too much screen time to grisly visuals and relying too much on crashes and explosions when simpler, more human developments provide the real thrills.
-- Chris Herrington
When it comes to fighting crime, is there one moral code or several? Which do we want more: law-abiding police or police who get the job done? Can there be any compromise in between?
Training Day director Antoine Fuqua takes us deep into the world of police and criminals and crime that isn't always perpetrated by criminals. Denzel Washington plays 13-year veteran narcotics officer Alonzo Harris. Years of patrolling the streets have conditioned him to live by one rule: "In the streets you must figure out which you are, a wolf or a sheep." Alonzo has become a wolf but not a lone wolf. With his group of crooked police counterparts, he has built a reputation for doing whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means excessive brutality, planting evidence, or murder.
Ethan Hawke plays a wet-behind-the-ears cop, Jake Hoyt, whose dream is to be a narc officer. But first he must impress his new boss (Alonzo) and prove that he, too, can be a wolf.
The film takes place in a 24-hour period, beginning with Jake leaving home for his first day on the job and ending with his return. During the course of the day, Jake comes to understand the intricacies of police work as the lines of justice are continually blurred by Alonzo and other law- enforcement officials.
As soon as he reports for duty, Alonzo takes Jake straight to the streets. Here is where his teaching begins as we meet the drug dealers, petty thieves, and muggers who make up Alonzo's Los Angeles. These interactions provide insight into the ways in which Alonzo may have shifted over time.
Hawke does a good job playing the new, naive kid on the block. It's easy to identify with his clear-cut form of enforcement and the morals that shape his actions. He is the perfect foil for Alonzo, who started out like Jake. The characters make you question your own standards, though the film never jumps to conclusions. No excuses are made for the criminals and none are made for Alonzo. Each character truly believes in what he is doing, and that's all that matters.
Also, the film is not overdone. Los Angeles is not made rougher than it actually is, project residents and gang members are portrayed sensibly instead of as mindless criminals, and as in real life, everyone doesn't live happily ever after.
Why did Washington want to play a role out of the realm of his usual, however imperfect, heroes? Maybe he figured playing a bad guy would win him an Oscar since portraying a race-harmonizing football coach, Civil War soldier, imprisoned boxer, and religious leader did not. Or maybe he was just bored with being the good guy and wanted a taste of how the other half lives. Either way, Washington delivers a good performance as always, but we still like Denzel the hero. Some guys just aren't meant to be bad.
-- Janel Davis