Just when you thought that Wes Craven was washed-up, back up he comes like one of the killers in his films, teeth bared and meat cleaver grasped firmly in hand. Only this time, it’s not so much a meat cleaver as a thin scalpel, and he seems to be having a jolly good time.
Having possibly figured that he’s had enough of scary movies for the time being –Scream 3 will do that to a person – Craven dives into a new genre for him, the trick thriller. This is a kind of film that pops up occasionally, in which an everyday sort of guy gets shanghaied into a life-or-death situation by a dead-eyed professional who assures them that unless they do Exactly As They Are Told (and That Thing is never fun, never involves going out for ice cream or something), then Someone Close To Them Will Die. One of the best examples of this kind of film was 1995’s Nick of Time, wherein Christopher Walken in a bad mustache kidnaps meek accountant Johnny Depp and tells him that unless he goes and assassinates a certain politician within 90 minutes (the whole thing plays out in real time), his daughter gets a bullet between the eyes. Not too shabby.
In Wes Craven’s Red-Eye, the ordinary person is Miami hotel manager Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), taking the titular red-eye from Dallas back home after burying her grandmother. It’s raining, the flight is delayed, the other passengers are cranky, she’s got her divorced dad (Brian Cox) worrying her ear off on the phone, and all the while she’s got to talk her assistant back at the hotel (Jayma Mays, so perky she deserves her own sitcom already) through the process of accommodating some demanding guests and getting ready for their VIP guest, the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. Then she gets some yuppie’s iced _mocha splashed all over the front of her suit. Not a good night.
Her refuge in the storm is the kind and reassuring Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), who faces down some jerk in the line and then tells her about the best place to get nachos. A couple drinks and some idle chat later, they end up sitting together on the plane. If you think that he’s being so accommodating because he’s a nice guy and that their seat locations were just a coincidence, then you haven’t seen enough movies. Not long into the flight, the hammer comes down: he’s there for a reason and it’s this: Jackson works for some fellows who want to send a message by taking out the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. To facilitate this, he’d like Lisa to call the hotel and switch the Deputy Secretary to another, presumably less safe, suite. If she doesn’t, then Jackson’s associate, the guy sitting in a silver BMW in the dark outside Lisa’s dad’s Miami house, will find reason to use that 12-inch K-Bar he’s got with him.
It’s impressive enough how Craven handles the opening 20 or so minutes of the film, when literally all we’re doing is watching an overworked worrywart of a hotel manager trying to get home on a late flight. The film finds all those little details of stranded airline residents, the people dozing in chairs, the kids playing their video games in a circle on the floor, the easy yet strained camaraderie of travelers in a bad situation. And McAdams and Murphy fit so snugly into their roles that you don’t mind a bit just following along with their conversation.
But even better, and more admirable, is the way in which Craven works with the final stretches of Racing Against Time. It’s no surprise how well he handles the film’s plane-set scenes, if a horror director knows anything, it’s how to ratchet up the tension in tightly enclosed spaces. But once we hit tarmac and Miami sunlight, with cars racing down highways and cellphone batteries going dead at inopportune moments, things could have gone horribly awry for a director better used to skulking about in the night. This is not a film with fat on its bones, however, things click along at a pace so efficient it’s almost unseemly in today’s bloated studio film climate. One can almost imagine the studio exec asking if a subplot couldn’t be added here, or why couldn’t they tack on another climax? (Something that was definitely brought up and that Craven would have been well-served to listen to is the crummy look of the film; the cinematography is dull and the plane footage is absolutely 1970s vintage, while what special effects there are look like they could have been whipped up on an old Macintosh in about 10 minutes.)
Clocking in at a positively whippet-fast 85 minutes, Red-Eye doesn’t have much time to mess around, and that’s a good thing. There’s plenty in this script (by first-timer Carl Ellsworth) that barely hangs together as is, and would completely collapse if inflated to fill the standard Hollywood structure. McAdams is a gorgeous creature to behold here, with her sculpted face and 40s movie-star locks, but she also has some steel to her, and after spending some time in her company, it’s easy to see how the hotel manager proves to be no easy pushover for Murphy’s comparatively colorless criminal. Just wait until you see what happens with the pen.
This is more fun than you should really be allowed to have in a PG-13 film.