Joy Ride (2001)

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When you’ve got over making “Fast and Furious” references at Paul Walker doing car stunts (and have, for the deep cut fans, noticed that the voice of “Rusty Nail” is also in that movie), there’s a surprisingly good movie lurking somewhere. It’s also a relatively early credit for genre titan JJ Abrams – after writing and producing a couple of Harrison Ford movies in the 90s, he was in the middle of his first TV show “Felicity” when he turned his hand to this.

Walker is Lewis, and he’s been in love with Venna (Leelee Sobieski) since forever; while chatting from their separate colleges, she mentions her ride back to their home town has cancelled on her. He, like any fine man, sees an opportunity so cancels his plane ticket and uses it to buy a car to go and pick her up with. So far, so good, and I was right there with him – but there’s a snag, and that snag is his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn). He has to bail Fuller out of jail on the way, and Fuller just decides to tag along; however, it’s when he decides on a whim to buy a CB radio and fit it to the car that the movie really kicks off.

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Really, it’s about Lewis continuing to make bad decisions, inspired by his Fuller for sure, a character who seems pathologically unable to do the right thing – but bad decisions nonetheless. While flicking through the CB radio “channels”, they encounter the rather unusually sounding Rusty Nail (an unbilled Ted Levine, one of the greatest voices in the business), and Fuller pressures Lewis into putting on a female voice and pranking the trucker. This escalates, involving murder, and then Rusty Nail decides to get his own back on the two brothers – and Venna, when she gets picked up too.

If you’ve seen “Duel”, you’ll have a bit of an idea of how things progress. A seemingly magic, unstoppable truck pursues our heroes, with the added creepiness of a voice (we never really see Rusty Nail) using a kidnapped friend to force them into ever tighter corners. There are some fantastic set-pieces in it and lots of clever little moments, and if you ignore the overarching plot completely, you’ll have a really good time. But, of course, it’s really difficult to ignore the plot of a movie.

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I guess the chief issue is Rusty Nail’s supernatural abilities. He identifies the car the brothers are driving in, then follows them all the way to Venna’s college, tracking them and remaining undetected despite the fact he’s in a huge big-rig truck. Then he figures out that the woman our three heroes had a casual conversation with outside the dorm was actually Venna’s roommate and not some vague casual acquaintance, and kidnaps her too (while staying in CB range). And there’s the time he figures out what road they’re going to use, then spraypaints a message on road signs, one word at a time. So, he’d have needed to work out how many words he wanted to use and paint them in reverse, or he’d have been driving for miles on the wrong side of the road. No other road user stopped him or reported him to the police in all this time. It’s also exceedingly unlucky that the one guy they picked at random to prank is a grimly determined psychopathic murderer, but I guess without such coincidences, the movies would be a less busy place.

There’s justification for all this stuff, and Roger Ebert (who loved this movie) goes through a few of them…but I don’t buy it. Given the movie’s only 97  minutes long, it could have spared a minute to explain just how he’s able to do what he does. Or perhaps I’m complaining about the wrong things, because it’s still packed with fun and excitement (Zahn’s ability to be comic relief in the middle of a pretty tense thriller is a lot of fun to witness), with a crescendo that really knocks it out of the park. Director John Dahl seems to be a TV guy these days, having not directed a non-TV movie since 2007, which is a shame; he’s got a great ability to make the ordinary into the frightening. Plus, his commentary on the DVD is excellent, full of self-deprecating humour and stuff like “I never want to shoot another car as long as I live”.

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When you find a question forming in your mind that starts “how did he…?”, just cut it off and enjoy the movie. And wonder about the shape it could have taken – three separate endings were filmed, and Sobieski filmed “romantic interludes” with Zahn and Walker, both of which were cut. The lack of any real romance at the heart of the film is odd, but a good kind of odd I think. Also, if you’re in the UK or Australia, the title of the movie will be “Roadkill”, because joy-riding is a slightly less pleasant thing over here.

Rating: thumbs up

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Knights of Badassdom (2014)

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Filmed in 2010, still in post-production in 2012, finally released in 2014, apparently cut by the studio against the director’s wishes, disowned by one of its writers, and no review copies provided before its release. Just how bad is this?

Joe (Ryan Kwanten, shirtless wonder of “True Blood”) is a bit of a drifter through life. He’s a mechanic, is in a metal band – which has gone through doom, sludge and black metal styles, although when you hear him sing one of his songs at the end it sounds like pure 80s “hair” – and lives in the spare room of his friends Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage) place, a normal-ish house with the frontage of a mansion. They’re there to help Joe out when he gets dumped by first suggesting he goes LARPing with them, then when he refuses drugging and boozing him into unconsciousness, dressing him up in LARP gear and taking him to an event.

Live Action Role Playing is, by all accounts, tons of fun. Make yourself a character, make yourself some gear, get a foam weapon or two and go on adventures out in the woods. Imagination is required, obviously, but it’s a sub-culture that continues to thrive and long may it do so. Joe used to play D&D way back, but is years out of that life, although after some fairly mild protestation he sees Gwen (Summer Glau) walking past and decides to change his mind. Gwen joins their group, along with her cousin Gunther who thinks it’s all real, and Lando (Danny Pudi) who tries to bend the rules at every opportunity. Gamesmaster Ronnie Kwok (Jimmi Simpson) insists that Joe’s character be introduced to the world via a summoning spell, so Eric produces the old book he found on the internet and proceeds to read a passage out of it. Little does he know that the book is a real 16th century tome on witchcraft and suchlike, and rather than having a bit of fun they summon a succubus demon, which takes on the shape of Joe’s ex Beth (Margarita Levieva).

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The large LARP event continues on, with the different teams doing their quests and having a good time, while the succubus picks off people out in the woods on their own. Oh, and there’s a subplot with a group of locals who are into paintballing hating the LARP guys. When the demon finally reveals itself, they accidentally turn it into an enormous beast, and it would have been demon vs. a bunch of guys with foam swords but luckily, Eric is a genius real weapon-maker, and has all sorts of swords and axes in his van.

There are two sides to this film, the plot and the comedy. The comedy is strong – Peter Dinklage is, of course, amazing (even if it sounds like he’s doing an impression of the Saturday Night Live sketch “The Californians”); Joe’s fish-slightly-out-of-water reactions to the LARP never stray over the line into mockery of the culture, the people doing the LARP fights are all into it, so there’s lots of dramatic swordplay and honourable “deaths”, and the authority figure of Ronnie Kwok, while he could have been a cartoon villain, is just a guy who wants to make a great adventure for everyone. There’s maybe a bit too much of that thing where someone will exclaim loudly in faux-medieval, then sneak in the real-life meaning of their words quietly afterwards, but this is small potatoes. There’s a lot of laughs in this film, it’s got a cast of comedy heavy-hitters and they’re all on form.

The plot is where the problems lie. They handwave away them owning a one-of-a-kind book of almost incalculable value; Joe gets over his ex very quickly indeed; the subplot of Gunther’s mental problems is played for laughs and has no resolution; the succubus is a complete non-character; and the paintball subplot goes absolutely nowhere. When you think of the number of people who die in this film, too, you’re expecting some sort of reset spell, because comedies which end with 5 people out of a hundred left alive are sort of a tough sell. Oh, there’s an epilogue bit where it tells you what happens to all the characters which feels tacked on by slightly less funny writers.

Overall, though, I liked this film. Low-key, decent sense of humour, and a raft of good-to-great performances. I think female / gay male viewers of this might have a bit of a gripe, though. We get a nice tight focus on Summer Glau’s behind a few times, and there’s an entirely gratuitous lesbian kiss scene; but when it comes to revealing Ryan Kwanten’s shirtless physique, which my wife assures me is very nice to look at indeed, we get basically nothing. Seriously, filmmakers – people who like to look at naked and semi-naked men have just as much money to spend on films as those who like to look at women, so if you’re going to throw in gratuitous scenes, give everyone what they want. Has anyone who wasn’t an enormous asshole ever complained about there being too much male flesh on display in a film?

Rating: thumbs up

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