Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who made such a vivid impression as the hero of “28 Days Later” and as spooky Dr. Jonathan Crane in “Batman Begins,” is even better as Jackson Rippner, the manipulative villain of Wes Craven’s tense, tight little thriller, “Red-Eye.”
Charming at first, apparently casual until he reveals that he’s essentially a stalker with carefully planned homicide on his mind, Jackson doesn’t turn into a standard bogeyman until the rather conventional finale. He’s too busy taking advantage of coincidences, making his victim feel comfortable, and taking his own devilish time doing it.
He’s an improviser at heart, and for a few minutes he nearly captures the heart of the heroine, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), the resourceful manager of a luxury Florida hotel. Then, as their plane leaves Dallas and heads for Miami, he reveals that he plans to order the murder of her father (Brian Cox) if she doesn’t cooperate with his plan to assassinate a Homeland Security deputy.
Lisa describes herself as a “people pleaser, 24/7,” and she’s such a workaholic that she keeps tabs on the hotel even when she’s in Texas attending her grandmother’s funeral. She’s constantly on her cell phone, giving advice about handling “guests with special needs” (translation: spoiled jerks) to her dizzy, overwhelmed assistant (Jayma Mays).
Jackson singles out Lisa precisely because so many people trust her. He knows she has the authority to move people around the hotel, and that veteran guests have confidence in anything she approves — even when their new room arrangement turns them into sitting ducks. It’s a diabolical plan. It’s also full of holes.
The setup is so farfetched, and the ending so familiar, that the movie falls just short of becoming the B-movie classic it clearly wants to be. Because so much depends on things falling into place at exactly the right moment, credibility is sacrificed long before Jackson’s motives are revealed.
Nevertheless, the script by Carl Ellsworth (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) cleverly keeps track of half a dozen characters, including a fuzzy-headed “Dr. Phil” fan and a tart senior flight attendant (Suzie Plakson) who complains about airline pensions and mistakenly believes that Lisa and Jackson have joined the “mile-high” club.
Craven certainly keeps the story moving, even in the cramped airplane scenes that take up much of the 85-minute running time. Rarely has fear of flying been so craftily exploited in a movie. Lisa almost doesn’t need to be terrorized by Jackson; McAdams deftly suggests that she’s already scared enough by a shaky takeoff and continuing turbulence on the flight.
And she’s hardly alone. Craven skillfully cuts away to the reactions of several passengers, including teenage boys who play on each other’s fears and an obnoxious doctor who seems peeved that he’s been recruited to help in an emergency. This may not be the best work of the creator of “Scream” and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, but it demonstrates that Craven has lost none of his ability to scare us silly.