Dir: John Dahl. US. 2001. 98mins

Fasten your seat belts and hang on to your popcorn as director John Dahl unleashes a heart-stopping, scare-the-pants-off them, precision-engineered thrill machine. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Joy Ride provokes all the wild-eyed terror and hysterical laughter of a giddy childhood visit to a fairground attraction. A return to form after the disappointments of Unforgettable and Rounders, this represents Dahl's most commercial venture to date and should generate hefty box-office returns in all territories and ancillary markets.

The escalating consequences of a malicious prank fuel a storyline that has enough pace and energy to overcome any sense of cynicism. Most audiences will be too busy clinging to the edge of their seats to trouble themselves with the niceties of narrative contrivance and the accomplished young cast work extremely hard to encourage the suspension of disbelief. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and nothing is going to stand in its way.

Much more relaxed and charismatic than he appeared in The Fast And The Furious, Paul Walker stars as college freshman Lewis. When his dream girl Venna (Sobieski) announces that she has broken up with her boyfriend and needs a lift home, he decides to drive across country and play the gallant knight to her needy damsel. Along the way, he stops in Salt Lake City to bail out bad boy brother Fuller (Zahn). The two brothers haven't met in five years but an initial friction soon melts into a wary camaraderie, even after Fuller adds an antique cb system to his little brother's cherished 1971 Chrysler Newport.

Soon, Fuller has coaxed his brother into adopting the caller name of seductive temptress Candy Kane and they tease lonely trucker Rusty Nail with the promise of excitements to come. The heavens open, the duo take sanctuary at the remote Lone Star Motel and Fuller pushes the practical joke one step further by arranging for Rusty Nail to pay a visit on an ill-mannered fellow guest. The result is a grisly attack and the two men fleeing for their lives pursued by the psychotic, vengeful trucker.

Like a gifted angler, Dahl gets his hook into the audience in the initial stages and then starts reeling us in. He knows exactly when to crank up the tension and when to break the spell with a brief respite or a jolt of black humour. He also knows how to use the power of imagination to the film's full advantage. For instance, we never see what happens in the motel room. We only see the brothers listening through the wall desperately trying to make sense of random sounds as sniggering jocularity turns to rising anxiety.

Later, the victim is shown in a hospital bed with his jaw ripped off and that's all we need to know to establish the ferocity of the killer. Like Steven Spielberg's Duel, the man behind the wheel remains unseen and all the more unsettling because of his anonymity. All we hear are the gravelly tones of his taunting voice. This is audience manipulation by a master of the game.

As the cross-country scramble turns into all-out war, Dahl keeps the pedal to the metal and manages to maintain some sense of logic and credibility as we experience the white knuckle tension of stalling engines, last minutes escapes, a dastardly kidnap plot and a race to the rescue that goes straight back to cliffhanging silent cinema melodrama. At one point the brothers are forced to disrobe and parade their nudity in a busy cafe; at another Dahl dares to emulate Hitchcock with a chase through cornfields in the North By Northwest tradition. The film has endless points of reference for movie buffs without sacrificing its mass audience adrenaline buzz.

The ambiguous ending that leaves the door open for a sequel is almost obligatory for the modern thriller but even this is achieved in a way that doesn't entirely cheapen what has gone before. Lean, purposeful storytelling, Joy Ride might once have been a grand little B movie. Masterful direction and expert performances elevate its stature and box-office potential. Sobieski may have little to do but the two men are perfectly cast with Zahn's brash, smart-ass persona balancing Walker's straight-arrow respectability and his timing providing much of the very welcome comic relief.

Prod co: Regency Enterprises.
Int'l sales: 20th Century Fox.
Exec prods: Bridget Johnson, Patrick Markey, Arnon Milchan.
Prods.: JJ Abrams, Chris Moore.
Scr: Clay Tarver, Abrams.
Cinematography: Jeffrey Jur.
Prod des: Robert Pearson.
Eds: Eric L Beason, Scott Chestnut, Todd E Miller, Glen Scantlebury.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Main cast: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Bowman, Stuart Stone.