Joy Ride

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It is a joy to watch “Joy Ride,” a thriller that appears fresh not by breaking the rules but by actually following them. Since most thrillers ignore matters of logic, character and pacing, “Joy Ride” is an innovation because it doesn’t.

It’s about a college student named Lewis (Paul Walker) who embarks on a spring break road trip to see about turning his relationship with his life-long friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) into something less platonic.

On the way from California to Colorado, he stops in Salt Lake City to fetch his estranged brother Fuller (Steve Zahn), who is in jail for being drunk and disorderly. The two haven’t had much to do with each other in recent years, but they get along well enough. Fuller is promising to clean himself up and be a little more responsible.

He takes a step or two backward, though, when he installs a CB radio — “a prehistoric Internet” — in Lewis’ car and convinces Lewis to help him play pranks with it. Lewis adopts a falsetto voice and tells a gruff-sounding trucker called “Rusty Nail” that he’s a gorgeous woman named Candy Cane who is waiting to meet him at a Wyoming motel.

They give him the number of the room next to theirs so they can peer through the window at the hilarity when he shows up and is met by someone who has no idea what’s going on. Alas, Rusty Nail turns out to be psychotic and nearly kills the guy (don’t worry, we’ve already been shown that he’s a jerk). Next thing you know, he’s calling for Candy Cane on the radio and hunting down the guys responsible for embarrassing him. Let the deadly games of cat-and-mouse begin!

The most noticeable thing that sets “Joy Ride” apart is its sense of humor: It has one, and it’s not ironic. Casting Steve Zahn — one of the funniest men on the planet — in the lead role was good thinking, but the script (by Clay Tarver and Jeffrey Abrams) is full of funny lines anyway, and none of them is about scary movies. No self-referential, post-“Scream” dialogue about how characters in movies always act, or how the bad guys are never as dead as you think they are. The humor is here because the characters are like real people who crack jokes sometimes and get scared other times.

The other major difference is that none of the characters does anything particularly stupid. Most horror films are fueled by a protagonist doing something dumb that no real person would ever do, but here, Fuller and Lewis get into their situation rather innocently. Their subsequent behavior is logical, too, which makes the whole thing infinitely scarier. This isn’t a nightmare that could only happen to movie morons. This is something that could happen to smart people like us, too!

Let us also remember this lesson: The less you see of the bad guy, the more frightening he is. Restraint is better than excess.

Steve Zahn’s wit and nice-guy energy go without saying, and Paul Walker delivers a likable performance as his brother. Leelee Sobieski remains winsome and pleasant, too. The trio are a fine ensemble.

Director John Dahl (“Rounders”) maneuvers a snappy U-turn halfway through, where the crisis apparently is averted, but we know better. And then there are a few scenes that would seem irrelevant, except that they’re so much fun. When the action picks up again, we’re not surprised, but we weren’t tapping our feet impatiently, either.

The film’s only downfall is its last 10 seconds. Unsatisfied with a crackerjack movie and a solid conclusion, they had to throw in an unoriginal “twist” that hurts more than it helps. A movie this clever and fun should have had more confidence in itself. Aside from those final 10 seconds, it’s up there among the most enjoyable thrillers in recent memory.

A- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, some gruesomeness,.)

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