Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky knows what it is like to feel terror while traveling by plane: he once got stranded overnight in Newark Airport.
"And you're right, you know, most days it is my own business. But right now, as fate would have it, my business is all about you."—Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), explaining the plan
Wes Craven usually seems to alternate between making a good movie and making a bad movie. His last picture was Cursed, which was very bad. It stands to reason that Red Eye should be pretty good.
Facts of the Case
Lisa (Rachel McAdams, Wedding Crashers) does not like airplanes. She still needs to get home, though, since her job at a ritzy Miami hotel demands her attention. A major government official (Jack Scalia) is on his way, and the newbie at the front desk (Jayma Mays) can barely keep it together. So it is the late-night "red eye" flight for Lisa. Good thing there is that cute, funny guy sitting next to her.
But that guy, Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins) is a hit man, and he has Lisa hostage in her window seat. If she does not help him set up an assassination of the government official, her father (Brian Cox) will be murdered. There is no where to go, no one to help. And she doesn't even get a cheap bag of peanuts out of the whole deal.
Things did not start off promising. First, compulsory trailers for a lame romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and—God help me—Michael Bay's The Island. So I was already working myself into a bad mood. I remembered that other "trapped on an airplane" movie I recently watched and heartily disliked. I thought, "Oh, great. The bad guy's name—his damned name—is Jackson Rippner. Duh. How desperate is that?"
But then Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams made a joke about it.
Airplane thrillers, and there are an awful lot of them if you think about it, play off of your anxiety about the airline industry, naturally. Cramped quarters, bad food, insincere service, and questionable physics (how do those things stay up?)—this is perfect fodder for both overheated thrillers and hack stand-up comedy. There is nothing terribly original about Red Eye. It is, as Wes Craven calls it, a "page turner," the sort of cheap paperback tale you might buy in the airport so you can read it in a few hours and throw it away.
>From its opening few moments—quick title cards, opening montage edited tight as a drum, percussive score by Marco Beltrami—Wes Craven makes it clear that he will abide no nonsense or fluff. Red Eye will be an efficient machine, a visual page turner. Compare the first act in its clipped dramatic economy to the meandering opening of Red Eye's box-office competitor, Flightplan. Just like Jodie Foster's Kyle, Rachel McAdam's Lisa is traveling home after a funeral. But she rolls breathlessly through her life as a customer service type. Kyle was one of the elite, designer of the plane itself. She was distant from the people around her, from her own child (allegedly due to her grief), and from the audience. Lisa's problems are more down-to-earth. She rides coach. She is a "people pleaser, 24-7."
Like Lisa, Jackson Rippner is a hard-working functionary, a team leader rather than a solo operator. He, like Lisa, has customers to please. He is smart, and smartly written by debut screenwriter Carl Ellsworth. Cillian Murphy is a great find for this part. Baby-faced, blue-eyed (with cheekbones borrowed from Joan Crawford), Murphy plays Rippner as unerringly cute and unthreateningly metrosexual—at least through the first act. But he can also turn those blue eyes to ice, as he takes Lisa prisoner with whisper calm threats of violence.
Red Eye is a Hollywood thriller, so you know where this is going to go. Lisa has to figure out a way to outmaneuver Rippner, stop the assassination, and rescue her dad. No surprises here. But Ellsworth's script succeeds in making the characters behave like intelligent people, not the usual stupid and unobservant types necessary to make most thrillers work. Of course, thrillers also need plenty of little coincidences (phones that break down at the worst possible moment; supporting characters that wander by just as some important event was about to happen). The speed and precision of Craven's direction allows those moments to slip by without looking forced. At a taut running time of 76 minutes (not including end credits), Craven has no patience for the usual Hollywood foolishness. If only more bloated blockbusters showed this much self-control.
The film's spring does unwind a bit in the last act, when the plane finally lands in Miami. The coincidences do tend to pile up faster than Craven can really handle (or probably any director). But the film never gets silly, the pacing is tight, and again, nobody behaves stupidly.
>From a technical perspective, the film looks beautiful on DVD. Craven balances the closed feel of the sets by shooting in 2.40:1, and the anamorphic transfer shows strong texture with no discernable flaws. The only problem I noticed was a brief audio glitch during the layer change. Aggressive rear channel and subwoofer action worked well to convey the feeling of being in a cramped airplane shuddering under air turbulence.
Nothing in the extras really stands out. DreamWorks includes two making-of featurettes, both solid and efficient, just like the feature itself. The first is a general overview of the production; the second focuses particularly on Wes Craven, touting Red Eye as a major turn in his career, because it is a thriller rather than a horror film. Really though, it is not a huge departure for him. Several of his films (Last House on the Left was a revenge drama; The Serpent and the Rainbow was decidedly political) have slipped across genre boundaries. And honestly, is Red Eye more radical a change for Craven than Music From the Heart?
Oddly, Craven never mentions Music From the Heart during his commentary track with producer Marianne Maddalena and editor Patrick Lussier. Lussier, who correctly calls Red Eye "lean," is really the secret weapon on Craven's team. Together, the director and editor have pared down their tale so that character beats are conveyed with looks and not punchlines, and the story always stays in focus.
It is rare to come across a straight-up thriller these days that does not disappoint on some level, whether it has some glaring plot holes, characters who behave like morons for the story to work, or just a general sense that everyone involved is just trying to crank out another piece of Hollywood product. Red Eye is by no means perfect—it does rely on a few too many coincidences to work—but it manages to keep a solid tension level without becoming exhausting or tedious. Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy are appealing leads who show fine chemistry. Wes Craven shows how much a talented director can do with a few tense looks and some smart dialogue. The result is one of the better thrillers I have seen in a long time.
The downside is that now Wes Craven's next movie will probably suck.
Wes Craven, cast, and crew are upgraded to first class and given as many of those little bottles of booze as they want. Case dismissed.
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