Departing less from his horror bailiwick than he did with "Music of the Heart" in 1999, Wes Craven retains shocks but dispenses with scares in the negligible "Red Eye." A virtual two-hander for the ever-engaging Rachel McAdams as a senior hotel staffer and Cillian Murphy as a hired killer holding her hostage on a Dallas-Miami overnight flight, pic generates tension that rises and falls fitfully on its way toward a climax suitable only for a farce.

Corrections were made to this review on August 15, 2005.

Departing less from his horror bailiwick than he did with “Music of the Heart” in 1999, Wes Craven retains shocks but dispenses with scares in the negligible “Red Eye.” A virtual two-hander for the ever-engaging Rachel McAdams as a senior hotel staffer and Cillian Murphy as a hired killer holding her hostage on a Dallas-Miami overnight flight, pic generates tension that rises and falls fitfully on its way toward a climax suitable only for a farce. The post-9/11 residue and gal-in-distress pressure could draw a strong female aud in opening frame, but a nonstop vid landing isn’t far off.

As the aptly named “Cursed” demonstrated earlier this year, Craven needed a respite from his favorite genre, and he found one in tyro screenwriter Carl Ellsworth’s script (based on a story hatched during college days with Dan Foos), playing off collective fears of flying and conspiracies against government Homeland Security officials.

But while solid basic thriller elements are in plain sight, their arrangement and certain storytelling basics — including an unnecessarily extended opening, an extra-talky middle and a risibly impossible conclusion — prevent “Red Eye” from tapping into zeitgeist paranoia. An extremely short playing time of 76 minutes, with the estimable Brian Cox in a secondary role with minimal dialogue, suggest a film that has been pruned, if not as massively reworked, as was “Cursed.”

The mysterious theft of a wallet sets an enticing opening note, and its connection to Lisa (McAdams), an efficient front-desk official at Miami’s swank Lux Atlantic hotel, is considerably delayed given pic’s brevity. Arriving at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, she briskly fields calls from stressed-out assistant Cynthia (Jayma Mays) and her lonely father (Cox), three years divorced from her mom. The way Lisa juggles cell calls sends a clear message: If she can handle call waiting, she can handle anything.

A seeming gentleman (Murphy) comes to her defense during a verbal tussle in a flight-delayed line, but one look into his piercing blue — not red — eyes bluntly announces trouble.

More suspiciously, Lisa soon finds him sitting right next to her on the plane, and alarm bells go off with the revelation of his name: Jackson Rippner. Or they should, but since Lisa is trained to stay cool under fire (despite her fear of flying in general), she stays in her coach seat.

Bad mistake. Within minutes of takeoff, Rippner has Lisa under his quiet but firm control, telling her that unless she phones Cynthia to reassign visiting Homeland Security director Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia) and his family to another suite in the Lux Atlantic, her father will be killed by Rippner’s partner, currently watching his home. Subsequent 40 minutes pit Rippner against Lisa, as she tries to slip SOS messages out under his watchful eye.

“Red-Eye” relies on hoodwinking an audience with its tension, so that the sheer illogic of the conspiracy plot can slip by without detection. But there isn’t enough on screen for the strategy to work, not even watching the increasingly impressive McAdams as she finds new and interesting ways of silently projecting fear. Indeed, Murphy’s broad and obvious telegraphing of his bad guy’s intentions only draws attention back to the story’s inane details: Keefe supposedly can’t be assassinated in suite X, but can be in suite Y.

After reams of dialogue, the two actors must go on what is certainly the most ridiculous movie chase through an airport since — well, the advent of Homeland Security — and then all the way back to Lisa’s father’s home. Craven’s fine eye for staging characters in domestic settings makes this routine flurry of action down hallways and staircases and around corners feel gripping. It’s a case of a skilled helmer using anamorphic widescreen to get the most out of very little.

As clean and technically well-crafted as any of Craven’s higher-budget horror romps, pic looks a bit cheap only in certain cutaway visual-effects moments. Key coach cabin set piece is an exceptionally detailed and — when bumping in the bad weather — realistic element in Bruce Alan Miller’s production design.

Red Eye

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release of a Benderspink production. Produced by Chris Bender, Marianne Maddalena. Executive producers, Bonnie Curtis, Jim Lemley, JC Spink. Directed by Wes Craven. Screenplay, Carl Ellsworth; story, Ellsworth, Dan Foos.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Robert Yeoman; editors, Patrick Lussier, Stuart Levy; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Bruce Alan Miller; art director, Andrew Max Cahn; set designers, Mick Cukurs, Elizabeth Lapp; set decorator, Maggie Martin; costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Jim Steube; supervising sound editors, Todd Toon, Chuck Michael; visual effects supervisor, John Sullivan; special effects supervisor, Ron Bolanowski; visual effects, Digital Dream; stunt coordinator, Joel Kramer; assistant director, Mark Cotone; second unit director, Kramer; second unit camera, Michael Negrin; casting, Lisa Beach, Sarah Katzman. Reviewed at AMC Century 14, Los Angeles, Aug. 11, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Lisa - Rachel McAdams Rippner - Cillian Murphy Dad - Brian Cox Cynthia - Jayma Mays Charles Keefe - Jack Scalia

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