Released direct-to-video seven years after its JJ Abrams co-scripted predecessor, Joy Ride 2 makes the franchise move of giving the audience some more of the returning antagonist right up front. There was some build-up in the first film before the truck driver with the CB handle Rusty Nail went homicidal, but this time around we get an opening kill sequence.
The sequel catches up with Rusty Nail as he’s making a pit stop during a drive home from the successful completion of his latest long haul, buying a pack of cigarettes at a truck stop. A parking lot prostitute, a “lot lizard” in trucker parlance, follows him out to his semi. She hops in the truck with him uninvited… and her realization that she’s in the cab with a total creep is quickly followed by the realization that the passenger door doesn’t open from the inside. That’s when she loses her head. Literally.
Two different actors portrayed Rusty Nail in the first movie. Ted Levine provided the voice that tormented the characters over their CB radio, while Matthew Kimbrough played the trucker when he appeared onscreen in the flesh. Here Rusty Nail duty falls to one actor, 6’5″ Mark Gibbon. Gibbon has a whole lot more screen time than Kimbrough did, but director Louis Morneau keeps the character mysterious by always obscuring his face in some way, either hiding it in shadows or placing an object like a hanging lamp between his mug and the camera. Gibbon does a reasonable approximation of Levine’s famous voice, but at times his delivery does seem hampered by the fact that he’s having to do an impression of another actor while acting himself.
When the film introduces its protagonists, we find that writers James Robert Johnston (The Howling Reborn) and Bennett Yellin (whose career has primarily consisted of working on Farrelly brother comedies – Dumb & Dumber, Stuck on You, the upcoming Dumb & Dumber To) have done a bit of gender reversal – rather than the first film’s dynamic of two brothers (Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) on a road trip with a female friend (Leelee Sobieski), here we have two sisters, Melissa (Nicki Aycox of Jeepers Creepers II) and Kayla (Laura Jordan) on the road with Melissa’s fiance Bobby (The Final Destination’s Nick Zano), riding in Kayla’s ’83 station wagon on the way to Melissa and Bobby’s combined bachelorette/bachelor party in Las Vegas.
Soon another character is added to the mix. Kayla picks up a guy named Nik (Kyle Schmid) who she knows from the internet, and I’m quickly wishing she had just left this guy on the side of the road. A self-described “third wave emo punk”, Nik boasts of the 33,628 friends he has on MySpace and spends way too much of the movie’s running time being one of the most insufferable jerks ever put on film. He is a big reason why my recent viewing of Joy Ride 2 was only the second time I’ve watched it since its 2008 release.
Nik convinces the group to deviate from the main highway and take a shortcut through the desert to Vegas. As usually happens in genre movies, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
The foursome wanders off down the dirt road they’ve found themselves on, eventually coming across an isolated, cliffside farmhouse. It’s a strange place. It’s Rusty Nail’s home, and as the group looks around the property, it becomes clear that Rusty Nail would fit right in with the Sawyer family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Nik busts into the house, and month old mail and food that expired a year ago shows that its owner isn’t around very often. Which makes it easier for the characters to come to the decision to “borrow” the beautiful 1971 Chevelle they find parked in the barn. Being our more sensible and responsible heroine, Melissa leaves a note behind at the house, informing the car’s owner of their situation and assuring them that the car is in safe hands, even including her cell phone number.
When Rusty Nail gets home that night, seeing the damage done to his house and his car missing, Melissa’s gesture isn’t enough to stop him from tracking the group down and turning their drive to Vegas into a nightmarish struggle for survival.
Kidnapping Bobby, making the others destroy their phones, taunting “Goldilocks” Melissa and her pals over the CB the Chevelle is equipped with, Rusty Nail plays sadistic games with the unlucky travelers, forcing them to make horrific choices and perform for his own twisted amusement. He demands that Laura cut off the finger she used to flip him the bird, he has Melissa strip to her underwear in front of semi truck headlights, he has Nik attempt to buy crystal meth while dressed in drag… And eventually, he takes some of them back to his barn for a torturous game of craps.
The climactic torture sequence is where the movie really lost me upon my first viewing, because by October of 2008 I had really gotten sick of the Saw franchise and the torturous games within it, so to see something like that pasted into Joy Ride 2, I was not happy. With some distance from those days and the height of Saw’s popularity, I can more easily take the craps game for the bit of terror that it is.
Rusty Nail doesn’t just play games with people, however. When pushed into situation where he has to make a quick kill, he will do so, and Joy Ride 2 provides him with an accessory to help him commit such an act – a chainsaw chain that hangs from his pants like a wallet chain. This comes in handy when he has to, say, cut a good Samaritan’s head in half.
Joy Ride 2 isn’t nearly as good as the film it follows, the writing and direction don’t quite match up to the 2001 John Dahl movie, but as far as DTV genre sequels go, Dead Ahead actually isn’t all that bad. It’s a passable next chapter in the messed up adventures of Rusty Nail. Its biggest fault is the character of Nik, but at least he gradually gets more and more comeuppance for the annoyance that he puts viewers through.