As the title implies, Red Eye is set aboard a commercial airliner making an overnight flight from west to east. Craven wastes little time in establishing the central character, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams, persuasive in her first leading role), a hotel manager returning home from Texas to Miami after the funeral of her grandmother, her relationship with her overprotective father, Joe Reisert (a streamlined, dark haired Brian Cox, post-Atkins diet). During a flight delay (our nation’s commercial airlines fare poorly here and neither do harried business travelers), Lisa meets an enigmatic stranger, Jack Rippner (Cillian Murphy, aptly cast). Scenes follow that hint at a potential romance between the two characters (what, in a romantic drama or comedy is commonly referred to as “meeting cute”). Given Wes Craven’s involvement in the film, his critical and general reputation, and the marketing campaign, audiences will have a different set of expectations in mind when entering the movie theater. Overall, their expectations will be met (and then some).
After finding themselves in adjoining seats, Jack reveals his identity (hint, he shares a profession with Tom Cruise’s character, Vincent, in last year’s Collateral) and his nefarious plans which, in short order, involve trading a life close to Lisa with the life of a federal official, Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. Predictably, the identity of Jack’s employers remains murky, somehow related to a nebulous terrorist group(s). Red Eye then turns on a classic moral dilemma with the central character forced to choose between saving one person’s life but not both (since this is a made-in-Hollywood, the solution to the dilemma involves the central character as action hero, racing against time and her antagonist to save both lives).
As such, Red Eye will remind audiences of the central dilemma that provides the central plot dynamic in the already mentioned Collateral and Nick of Time. In Collateral, the central character, forced against his will to drive an assassin around Los Angeles on his nightly rounds, faces a choice between self-preservation and somehow thwarting the assassin. It’s only when his focus shifts from self-preservation to saving at least one of the assassin’s targets, and thus putting his own life at risk, that he stands a chance of defeating the assassin (credible, not really, but that’s more the fault of Collateral’s believability-stretching, or for some, believability-shattering premise). Directed by John Badham, Nick of Time is the closer analogue. There, the central character, played by Johnny Depp, is coerced into taking an active role in an assassination plot (he’s asked to kill a state governor in exchange for his daughter’s life). In Red Eye, Lisa’s captor demands that she facilitate placing the government official in harm’s way (her conscience still balks, however, at this lesser involvement). This dilemma and its non-obvious solution alone promises tension and suspense, both of which Red Eye, guided by Craven’s assured, unobtrusive direction, delivers.
Where Red Eye falters, however, can be, in part, traced to audience expectations, expectations guided by the marketing campaign, which suggests that the film’s action occurs in the confined, claustrophobic space inside an airliner. It does, but only partially. The third act converts Lisa from passive victim fighting to outwit and frustrate her tormentor into the “last girl” typical of slasher flicks (in other words, into action heroics). Her transformation, while more credible than the transformation of the central character in Collateral, occurs once the plane lands in Miami. Gone are the darkened, cramped spaces of the airplane crossing the continent at night, a near-perfect setting for a suspense thriller. In their place, Craven and Ellsworth open the action, substituting daytime scenes involving a frantic chase on foot and, later, the now standard cell phone calls hindered by signal or low battery problems (plot points played to better effect in last year’s underseen and underappreciated Cellular).
Viewers looking for meaty subtext about terrorism (and the futility of current methods in fighting terrorism) will be sorely disappointed. Instead, Jack’s employers are never described with any specificity and Jack is simply a mercenary-for-hire driven by greed not political ideology (the closest we get is a swarthy fellow vaguely coded as Middle Eastern aboard a fishing boat and an unfamiliar language spoken by several men) and the reason behind targeting a second-level government official in the real world is also left frustratingly vague (and, ultimately, unconvincing). There's also a brief denouement that runs counter to common sense, given the central character's unwilling participation in the assassination plot. Still, for an almost context- or subtext-free film (we do get a few, lightweight jabs at self-help books and their avid, easily influenced readers), Craven, working from Ellsworth’s taut, effective script, smartly ensures that Red Eye'spacing never flags or stumbles.
Ultimately, Red Eye is the kind of modestly budgeted, efficiently directed thriller that has become a rarity in today's Hollywood, with its focus on big-budget, action-oriented, effects-heavy films, especially during the prime summer months. Given the declining box-office results of recent A-level studio efforts, it's likely the tide has turned toward films that will follow Red Eye's formula for commercial success.
© Mel Valentin, 8th August, 2005
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