Red Eye is an 85-minute thriller which is happy to be just that. It has no pretensions, no desire to be seen as a ‘great film’, it simply wants to give us an enjoyable time, a rollercoaster ride, and in this intention it succeeds admirably. Director Wes Craven mostly focuses his film on two people in a confined space and - with the help of a couple of terrific performances - delivers a tense, witty and hugely entertaining piece of work.
The two people at the centre of the drama are Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy), who meet-cute at an airport where both are waiting for a delayed overnight flight to Miami. Lisa is the manager of a five-star hotel while Jackson is a little more guarded about what he does for a living (although his surname of Rippner may give a clue - yes, that’s Jackson Rippner!). The pair kill time by sharing a couple of drinks but soon their flight is called and it’s time to depart, and the prospect of losing sight of this handsome and charming stranger clearly disappoints Lisa. Remarkably it isn’t too long before they meet again, as Lisa’s seat is right next to Jackson’s - what are the chances?
Well, it seems the chances were pretty high as this is all part of Jackson’s sinister masterplan. He’s part of a political assassination plot and Lisa has to ensure the politician in question is moved to a different suite at her hotel, one which will be more vulnerable to attack. If Lisa doesn’t comply then Jackson assures her that she will never see her dad (Brian Cox) again.
Craven sets up the plot with brisk efficiency, hooking us into the story before the plane has left the runway, and once we’re in the air he proves his mastery of the genre with his consummate handling of the various twists and turns that follow. This is something of a change of pace for Craven, and it proves to be a welcome one, while still giving him the opportunity to show the abilities which has made him a legendary figure among horror directors. He builds the tension with real skill, providing a couple of smart and ingenious set-pieces. Red Eye is full of plot-holes and much of the action is implausible, but Craven constantly maintains the film’s forward momentum and doesn’t give us time to question what we’ve just seen.
As the heroine and villain of this tale, up-and-coming actors Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy give tremendous displays. The beautiful McAdams is especially impressive as Lisa, brilliantly portraying her vulnerability and fear while also skilfully charting her developing strength and determination to salvage the situation. It’s a beautifully measured and subtle performance. Murphy is great too, laying on the charm at the start of the film and then using those piercing eyes to genuinely chilling effect when his true nature is revealed. The pair have a strong chemistry and the underlying sexual tension between them adds another dimension to their scenes together. There are a couple of actors on the plane who make an impression with their brief screen time and Jayma Mays, in her first screen role, gives a lovely supporting turn as the young hotel clerk who has to deal with the chaotic scenes at ground level.
Red Eye doesn’t stay airborne all the way to the finish, and it’s here that the film begins to disappoint a little. Like last year’s Collateral, the film is a model of taut efficiency while it centres on two characters’ interplay in an enclosed space and once it ventures outside it starts to slip into genre conventions. The film’s climax is hectic and violent, involving Lisa being chased around by the psychotic Jackson, and there is an air of familiarity to it all. It’s the kind of stuff that Craven can do in his sleep and has done better on numerous occasions in the past. The last twenty minutes or so feels rather flaccid and never manages to match the tension and excitement that Craven gave us earlier.
The disappointingly conventional climax doesn’t do too much lasting damage though and Red Eye is ultimately that rarest of things: a Hollywood thriller which genuinely thrills. Some Craven fans might see it as a minor work for Craven but it’s a treat to see a film which succeeds so well on its own terms. Red Eye is smart, tense, witty and there’s nothing that feels superfluous in its 85 minutes - sometimes that’s more than enough for a night at the movies.