Red Eye Review: ITV Thriller Starts Silly, Gets Great

Thriller fans, prepare to board.

Richard Armitage and Jing Lusi as Dr Nolan and Hana Li on a plane in ITV's Red Eye
Photo: ITV

20 minutes in to Red Eye, a foot chase through Heathrow airport ends with a man making an impassioned plea outside a branch of Leon. He vaults over barriers like the kid in Love Actually and implores the crowd to film his testimony. Rightly wary of flash mob marriage proposals, the British holiday-going public are slow to act but get his message out: vascular surgeon Dr Matthew Nolan is being framed for murder and extradited to Beijing.

Is Nolan (Richard Armitage) guilty, or on the level? Is he being sacrificed by the British government to protect a valuable Chinese nuclear power deal, or is there a deeper conspiracy at work? DC Hana Li (Jing Lusi), the no-nonsense cop tasked with escorting Nolan on Flight 357, has six episodes to find out.

Li does find out in a thriller that very much rewards sticking with it through the somewhat silly early stages so it can build to a very entertaining finale with no shortage of twists. The opposite of so many other shows like it, Red Eye tightens as it goes. Instead of unravelling at the end, its threads are neatly tied up with some bonus emotional closure. Multiple unveilings and swerves lead to a thrilling last episode by which time the initially cardboardy characters will either have won you over or not obstructed your fun.

But before all that: the silliness.

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357 is no ordinary flight; it’s a jet-propelled country house from an Agatha Christie novel. (That’s metaphor, but also an unwritten Doctor Who episode I would watch). A mystery killer keeps bumping off the passengers, whose corpses get wrapped in airline blankets and stuffed into footwells and sleeping cabins while everybody else tries to enjoy their hot towel and in-flight movie. The murderer is among them but who are they, and what is their game?

In the early episodes, Red Eye’s discovery of ‘one, two, no wait three, oh FFS you’re not telling me there’s another one?’ dead bodies verges on farce. After that’s done with, the real intrigue can begin.

The real intrigue is the investigation, or more properly, investigations. DC Li’s in-flight sleuthing is matched on the ground by that of MI5 director Madeleine Delaney (Lesley Sharp looking sharp), and an aspiring journalist with a personal link to the story. The split of revelations for each of the three is handled well and importantly, happens fast. Playing out almost entirely mid-flight from London to Beijing, there’s very little waiting around for everybody to catch up with the latest developments or for things the audience already knows to be relayed down the phone.

Red Eye’s fast pace is all to its credit. One revelation has barely sunk in before we’re onto the next and the next and the next. There’s very little time to reflect, which is generally how thriller fans like it, and certainly for the best in a show that favours lines of the “cut the crap or I’ll go full Snowdon on this” and “are you going to hide in a bottle or help me catch this bastard?” variety. The dialogue is perfunctory and as lacking in personality as the characters, but none of that matters because Red Eye is all about plot.

That’s not to denigrate the cast. Richard Armitage is as reliable as ever in the role of Nolan, but doesn’t have much to work with in terms of character. After spending six episodes in Dr Matthew Nolan’s company, my familiarity with the man extends to knowing that he’s a) a doctor, and b) a vegan. Jing Lusi’s performance feels boxed in by the generic dialogue, but does get the chance to escape with a plot thread rooted in Li’s British-Hong Kong family history. Lesley Sharp adds some gravitas, and was clearly born to play the head of MI5 dressed in a series of chic suits and silk blouses.

That plot, it’s worth saying, involves some crossover with screenwriter Peter A Dowling’s previous air-set thriller, the Jodie Foster-starring 2005 feature film Flightplan. In essence, planes: easier to hide in than you’d think! Like the first series of BBC One’s submarine-set murder mystery Vigil, there’s a backstage tour frisson about being allowed down the ladders and behind the flapping airplane curtains whence emerges your warm can of Britvic orange juice.

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The rest of the story is just what you’d imagine: Chinese ministers, MI5/MI6 rivalries, the CIA special relationship, sniper assassins and sleazy Beijing nightclubs where people go “only when [they] want to disappear”. You’ve seen it and enjoyed it all before, though probably without such a decent lead as Lusi, and without the specifically British East and Southeast Asian characters and stories, which make for involving drama and are long overdue on our screens.

All in all, a good time had. Ready to board?

Red Eye is streaming on ITVX.


4 out of 5