Wes Craven's name has become so synonymous with the horror genre over the years that people often forget he's one of contemporary Hollywood's most dependable craftsmen. True, he's really only made one non-horror film during his career, the 1999 Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart, and while that movie is by no means a lost classic, it is a thoroughly professional piece of directing. Had Craven entered the industry during the days of the studio system, he probably would have spent his career happily churning out all kinds of B-pictures that wouldn't be appreciated until after he retired or passed away. With his latest film, Red Eye, Craven tries his hand at making a full-fledged thriller and he pulls it off rather nicely. Red Eye is strictly B-grade fare, but it has a playful wit and enough genuine tension to make it worth your time and money. Plus, it offers the welcome attraction of seeing two immensely likeable rising stars-Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy-get the chance to play leading roles in a major studio production.
It should be stated upfront that the story, written by TV scribe Carl Ellsworth, makes very little sense. On a dark and stormy night, Lisa Reisert (McAdams) is at the airport waiting to board the red-eye flight back home to Miami. While she waits in line at the check-in counter, she strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger, Jackson (Murphy). They later meet for drinks in the airport bar and again on the plane when they discover they are seated in the same row. In these early encounters, Jackson seems like a nice, normal young man, but if you've seen the film's trailer, you already know that his behavior changes the minute the plane reaches its cruising altitude. It turns out that he's part of a plot to assassinate the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, who is a regular guest at the Miami hotel where Lisa works as a personal concierge. But his usual suite makes him a difficult target, so Jackson needs Lisa to call the hotel and personally authorize a room change for the Secretary and his family. If she doesn't follow his instructions, Jackson will place a call to the hit man waiting outside her dad's home and give the kill order.
This ridiculous scenario raises a whole host of questions. Wouldn't it have been easier for the assassins to just hire a killer who could pose as a hotel maid? And why is Lisa the only person in the hotel who could make this change? Apparently a personal concierge outranks even the manager. You've also got to wonder how Jackson got hired for this job in the first place if this is the best plan he could come up with; he's either the worst assassin in history or completely bonkers. But no matter-the movie never pauses to explain itself, which is a smart move in this case. Like last year's equally preposterous (and equally enjoyable) B-movie thriller Cellular, Red Eye barrels on ahead, intent on providing thrills and chills rather than a realistic story.
While an airplane may not seem like the most exciting setting for a thriller, Craven keeps the proceedings appropriately suspenseful thanks to his expert sense of pacing and attention to detail. Red Eye gets the feeling of plane travel right, from the quiet that often descends upon takeoff to the harried flight attendants who fight to keep smiling even when annoyed. It's almost a shame when the film moves from the skies to the ground for the last act, which finds Lisa and Jackson playing a nearly wordless cat-and-mouse game in her father's house. By now, Craven can do this sort of sequence in his sleep, but he still knows how to push the audience's buttons. He's helped enormously by McAdams and Murphy, who give real performances instead of just phoning it in. McAdams is particularly good as a very resourceful damsel-in-distress; her performance here (as well as her winning supporting turn in the hit comedy Wedding Crashers) instantly catapults her above the current crop of young ingénues. It may only be a B-picture, but Red Eye succeeds where a lot of this summer's A-pictures have failed.