Take this 'Red Eye,' but buckle up

Taut. Tense. Gripping. Suspenseful. This reviewer hasn't used those words in so long I think I heard the keyboard cough. Nevertheless, they all apply to Wes Craven's "Red Eye," a high-concept, high-stress thriller that should have moviegoers traveling miles to see it. As long as they don't have to fly.

A two-character war of nerves aboard a Dallas-to-Miami overnight flight, "Red Eye" has the advantage of being short (85 minutes), fast-paced (it moves like a jackrabbit on espresso), and just funny enough, when it has to be, to keep one from peeling the padding off the armrest.

Craven, who has proven himself in constructing horror ("Nightmare on Elm Street") and then deconstructing it ("Wes Craven's New Nightmare," "Scream"), may be the smartest director in the history of B movies. It may be arrogant to call his pacing instinctive, but he knows just when to lighten the mood, and when to jolt an audience on edge.

"Red Eye" also has two young stars as convincing as they are magnetic: Rachel McAdams, probably best known as the lead of "The Notebook" (also "Wedding Crashers" and "Mean Girls") is Lisa Reisert, a workaholic hotel manager en route from her grandmother's funeral to her Miami home. Cillian Murphy ("28 Days Later," "Batman Begins") is Jackson, the ice-blue-eyed smoothie who flirts with her in the airport, turns up next to her on the plane, and promises, soon after takeoff, that her father (Brian Cox) will be killed in an ugly way if she doesn't call the hotel and have the visiting Secretary of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia) moved to a room more advantageous for assassins.

Given his postmodernist approach to the movie thriller, one can imagine Craven making "Red Eye" as a challenge both to himself and the conventions of the genre. But he makes it work, virtually without leaving the two seats occupied by the terrorist and the terrorized.

The challenges of structure and plotting - How would Jackson work his scheme? What would happen aboard the plane to delay Lisa from making that call and thus ending the movie? How would an intelligent woman in her position deal with such a situation? - are made both dramatic and plausible. And plausibility, or lack of it, is the one quality that crash lands more thrillers than anything else.

Along the way, Craven has made a movie that portrays precisely the current state of air travel in the United States - security-crazed, crowded, and largely unpleasant - an element that helps add to the tension in the film. Audiences might just get the impulse to empty their pockets and take off their shoes. If they're not too busy biting their nails. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for for some intense sequences of violence and language.

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