Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead

ON

Coming to DVD Tuesday, October 7th

Cast:

Nicki Aycox as Melissa

Nick Zano as Bobby

Laura Jordan as Kayla

Kyle Schmid as Nik

Mark Gibbon as Rusty Nail

Directed by Louis Morneau

Review:

In recent years, the surge in DTV product has made unlikely franchises out of the likes of Pulse, The Butterfly Effect, Mimic, Wrong Turn, House on Haunted Hill, The Mangler, and now 2001’s road-bound suspenser Joy Ride. Directed by John Dahl with a screenplay co-written by J.J. Abrams, the original Joy Ride was very nearly dumped direct to video itself, having its release date jerked around for months and finally released to theaters by 20th Century Fox in October of 2001 with little fanfare. But thanks to an appealing cast featuring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, and Leelee Sobieski and Dahl’s sure hand at generating tension, Joy Ride went on to become a modest hit in theaters and to gain an even greater following on cable and video.

But despite the original’s fanbase, has there really been a serious demand to see the grudge-holding trucker known as Rusty Nail wage war with another group of travelers? Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by ‘serious’. And also what you mean by ‘demand’. But for the powers-that-be at 20th Century Fox, the answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes’. It may not belong in theaters and frankly even video stores ought to consider themselves too upscale to carry it, but Joy Ride 2 is the perfect product for those DVD vending machines that are now found in every supermarket.

I imagine it won’t surprise many horror fans to hear that Joy Ride 2 is – at best – a perfunctory exercise in suspense. But as recommending factors, the acting talent (particularly lead actress Nicki Aycox – recently seen in a recurring role as Meg Masters in TV’s Supernatural and Jeepers Creepers) is above par, and director Louis Morneau (who was likely chosen for this gig for the fact that Hitcher II is on his résumé) makes good use of the production’s British Columbia locations (standing in for the American Southwest) and he doesn’t let the pace flag during the film’s 98 minute running time. However, Joy Ride 2‘s story (credited to writers James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin) is so asinine and two of its four central characters are so personally grating that by the fifteen-minute mark I was ready to drive a truck through my own TV.

Above all of Joy Ride 2‘s missteps, I have to talk about the character of Nik – the chosen wild card among Joy Ride 2‘s foursome. Aycox is steadfast in the lead as Melissa, Nick Zano plays her levelheaded fiancé Bobby, and Laura Jordan is Kayla, Melissa’s more impulsive sister. Kayla is so down with having fun, in fact, that she’s invited Nik, the internet boyfriend that she met through MySpace, to party with them in Vegas in advance of Melissa and Bobby’s wedding. Even though she’s never met him in person until this trip, Kayla explains to a skeptical Melissa and Bobby that she knows Nik’s not a serial killer because she Googled his name! But Nik is something far worse than a serial killer – he’s a heavily tattooed and pierced wanna-be punk with the attitude to go with it. He’s relentlessly snide, rude, self-absorbed, boorish, and infantile. As played by Kyle Schmid (who, in all fairness, is delivering what the script demands), Nik is such a despicable character that it forced me wonder what horror or thriller filmmakers are thinking of when they include a character like this.

In time, we do discover that there’s another side to Nik’s personality but that glimpse beyond the image he’s out to perpetrate isn’t worth enduring the time we’ve been forced to spend with the character. Whenever I see a character so unnaturally abrasive in a horror film, I have to wonder what purpose the filmmaker believes it serves. In the early ’80s it was standard practice to include a practical joker in the cast of slasher films. Whether it be Ned in Friday the 13th or Shelly in Friday the 13th: Part 3 or Harold in My Bloody Valentine, you had to have a practical joker around who didn’t know when – or how to – just be cool. But those characters were always more of a thorn in the side to the characters on screen rather than being aggravating to the viewers. But somewhere along the way, the need to include a practical joker in the cast transformed into a mandate to get a Total Asshole in there. It stopped being enough to just have a wise-ass as comic relief, filmmakers apparently felt that nothing less than a loathsome douchebag would do. And frankly, I’ve never understood that. Look at a movie like the original Halloween in which we like and relate to all the characters in the film. It matters to us when they’re in peril. Even when a character has slightly annoying traits like P.J. Soles’ Lynda, it’s still on an endearing level (“Totally!”) – but in the late ’80s, starting with Wendy Kaplan as Tina in Halloween 5 (1989) that all went out the window (just compare Soles’ Lynda with actress Kristina Klebe’s version of the same character in Rob Zombie’s Halloween). And the insane thing is I think we’re still meant to like these characters – rather than want to kill them with our own hands – for their uninhibited, extroverted natures. So maybe it’s just a matter of today’s horror filmmakers and actors having lost all perspective on what makes a human being likeable in the first place.

In the real world over the past twenty years or so, maybe people have become even bigger jerks and horror movies are simply reflecting that. Whatever the case, the bottom line as far as Joy Ride 2 is concerned is that you’ll hate Nik. You won’t love to hate him as you would, say, Paul Reiser’s character of Carter Burke in Aliens – you’ll just hate him. You’ll also hate Kayla for being inexplicably amused by his behavior rather than constantly apologizing to Melissa and Bobby for inviting this asshole. As for Bobby and Melissa, they’re essentially non-entities but as the conflict with Rusty Nail escalates, Melissa becomes a bit unlikable herself – or at least increasingly unsympathetic – by her inept handling of the situation and her bullish insistence that everyone follow her lead.

Making sympathy an issue for all these characters from the get-go is the matter of how they come to incur Rusty Nail’s wrath in the first place. After their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere (damn those short cuts!), the foursome comes across Rusty Nail’s house – empty while he’s hauling ass on the road – and promptly break in and steal the ’71 Chevelle they find in the garage. They don’t intend to keep it – just borrow it long enough to get to a car rental place and then return it – but the fact is they take it right out of the guy’s garage after smashing a window in his home and breaking the front door off its hinges. This isn’t like Walker and Zahn goofing around on the C.B. in the first Joy Ride where they simply tried to have a bit of fun with the wrong person, instead this is reckless, criminal behavior. Sure, Melissa leaves her number behind but that’s a small gesture after vandalizing someone home and stealing their car. Maybe if two characters had stayed behind until the other two returned, in the off chance that the owner of the car came home, that would have made them come off as more responsible and sympathetic. As is, you wouldn’t even fault a non-psycho for going psycho on these kids.

In keeping with the first film, Rusty Nail’s M.O. of sadistically stringing his prey along remains the same – only now with a greater taste for physical torture that reflects the influence of the Saw franchise in the years since the original Joy Ride made its debut. There’s lots of cat and mouse tension as Rusty dictates the rules of the road to Melissa (who he addresses as ‘Goldilocks’). Mostly this game playing involves too much credibility-straining silliness to matter, though (as when they scheme to satisfy Rusty’s demand for one of them to cut off one of their own fingers by making a covert trip to a local mortuary). There’s some action (and blood-letting) towards the final stretch that may make some viewers feel that their time watching Joy Ride 2 wasn’t completely squandered but on the whole, this second-rate sequel is somewhere between a jalopy and a car that’s been completely totaled.