Written by: James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin
Directed by: Louis Morneau
Starring: Nicki Aycox, Nick Zano, and Laura Jordan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Heck of a joy ride, isn't it.."
I know we already looked at Joy Ride 3: Roadkill yesterday, but there’s no reason we can’t do the same for the first sequel. It also had a punny subtitle and everything. So fret not, folks—we’re just Joy Riding in reverse this week. Don’t try this at home.
When Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead was released back in 2008, the genre was soaking in the gore-laden after math of Saw, Hostel, and their fellow torture pornographers. Apparently, having the Wrong Turn franchise around to get in on the action wasn’t enough for Fox, so they also dusted off Rusty Nail and his big rig for this unexpected follow-up to Joy Ride, which hit it big on video and cable. Sensing that this was the franchise’s natural habitat, the studio released the sequel directly to DVD, where it generically continued the exploits of everyone’s favorite deranged trucker, who basically begins to tread into slasher anti-hero territory here.
In the tradition, the film opens with a prologue that catches up with Rusty at a truck stop doing trucker shit, like picking up a hooker. Once he begins acting weird and recites his bit about loving the rain (strangely lyrical, this trucker), the girl attempts to bail but is thwarted by Rusty’s inventive use of his window and another truck’s trailer. Cut to our main protagonists, Melissa (Nicki Aycox) and Bobby (Nick Zano), an engaged couple heading to Vegas to celebrate with Melissa’s sister (Laura Jordan) and her boyfriend (Kyle Schmid) in tow. When their car breaks down in the middle of the desert (because of course it does), they decide to hike to the nearest sign of civilization. Their travels lead them to a seemingly abandoned house with a pristine car housed in the garage, so they get the bright idea to “borrow” it in order get to town and contact some help.
I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think that excuse would hold up in court. We’ll never know, though, because the car winds up belonging to Rusty Nail, who demands reparations. His idea is pretty extreme, though, since it involves kidnapping Bobby and making the other kids play one of his demented games in order to rescue him. At first, this hews pretty closely to the tone and spirit of the original, as the proceedings are relatively low-key and rely primarily on suspense: even when Rusty demands a girl’s severed finger (because she flipped him The Bird, you see), it yields to a pretty tense visit to a mortuary where the kids try to outsmart their tormenter.
Also in keeping with the original, Rusty is a bit playful and exhibits some sliver of personality—there’s a sense that he’s not torturing these kids just because they stole his ride, but also because the loudmouthed, goth boyfriend shit-talks the idea of truckers while in a diner. In a way, Rusty’s just defending the honor of his oily, CB fraternity, and you have to respect that on some level (I’ve always been against asking folks to cut their own appendages off, though, so maybe he’s taking it a bit far). Some of his less violent antics are similar to the stuff in the first film, too, such as an episode involving a striptease that ends with a twist. Another one finds the jerky, goth boyfriend having to cross-dress and enter a hellish den of truckers in order to score some drugs (seriously, it’s like a rest stop reimagined as a wasteland out of your worst nightmares).
For this stretch, Dead Ahead is a pretty respectable if not somewhat schlockier sequel—par for the course, if you will. The victims are a remarkably okay, milquetoast set of dopey white kids; for whatever reason, Aycox never quite took off as one of her generation’s scream queens despite headlining Jeepers Creepers 2 and Dead Birds. Her appearance here provides a reminder that she’s pretty capable in such a role even when the script doesn’t provide her with much to do; still, she shows a nice mixture of vulnerability, sweetness, and grit, meaning the film has something of a center. Threatening to unravel it is Schmid in the thankless role of the requisite slasher movie prick—you know, the guy that really deserves have a tire run over his face a couple of times. His turn is a mid-aughts cliché: he’s a “punk” masquerading as an emo kid putting on a silly, hard-ass front that quickly crumbles once Rusty targets him. Of course he tries to weasel out of it, citing the fact that he doesn’t even really know or care about the kidnapped Bobby, so he really swings for the fences in terms of awfulness (plus, he brags about still using Myspace in 2008, something only serial killers would have been doing at that point).
The fact that you really can’t wait for Rusty to off this guy speaks to the eventual shift in tone. Despite the terrible attempt at capturing Ted Levine’s signature drawl from the original film, Rusty winds up stealing the show here. It’s mostly out of default since the kids just aren’t all that compelling, and the film gradually begins to keep the audience on the edge of its seat in another fashion: suddenly, it’s all about anticipating what sick torture implements he’ll conjure up next, and it all culminates in a deadly game of craps. It’s at this point that the Saw influence becomes most obvious, as Rusty’s not so much an enigmatic, nigh-preternatural trucker so much as he’s just some guy who exacts body parts at the roll of a dice.
Where this film treats this turn as a diversion, the next sequel sees it as an on-ramp of sorts, and plunges right into the over-the-top splatter. Part two isn’t completely faithful to the original itself, but feels ever so slightly closer to its look and feel. If that sort of fealty is a paramount concern when it comes to sequels, then Dead Ahead is the more worthy follow-up; I’m not sure it’s a better film—if nothing else, the two are almost equally forgettable for different reasons. Besides, the question of superiority here seems pretty trifling when you consider what’s really being asked: “which of these would I stop to watch while channel surfing?” Probably neither, if I’m being honest. The original, on the other hand… Rent it!
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