Red Eye on ITV review: this Richard Armitage plane thriller fails to take off

ITV’s new thriller, Red Eye, has many similarities with the real thing. For the uninitiated, red eyes are long haul overnight flights. Usually, they’re drawn-out, boring affairs.

Well, the same applies to the show. It begins, naturally, at an airport. Dr Matthew Nolan (Richard Armitage) has just arrived in London after the 10 hour flight from Beijing but is promptly arrested at Heathrow for a crime he denies knowledge of.

British authorities tell him that a woman was discovered dead inside the car he claims he was driving alone after leaving a nightclub. But when no nonsense cops deny him his rights (you’re not in British territory until you’re through passport control, mate) he is packed onto the next passenger plane back to the Chinese capital to face charges of manslaughter.

Armitage, gruff and unsmiling as Guy of Gisbourne in the BBC’s Robin Hood, is similarly sober and deadpan as the wronged (or is he?) Nolan.

An entire flight next to him would be a shift for anyone and the undesirable job of keeping an eye on him falls to sprightly Hong Kong-born British detective Hana Li.

Seeing red: DC Li doesn’t immedietly take to her companion (ITV)
Seeing red: DC Li doesn’t immedietly take to her companion (ITV)

DC Li (Jing Lusi – with more to do here than her bit part in Crazy Rich Asians) brings some much needed energy and enthusiasm onboard the plane. She immediately takes against her brooding captive and orders steak to piss him off (he’s vegan: low blow).

The action takes off when Nolan charitably gives his meat-free meal to the only other vegan on board who was left without... only for him to stagger to the loo and collapse. A dog on board (an emotional support dog, of course) then licks the meal tray and also dies.

From there, the narrative goes into autopilot. The pair sit down. Calamity strikes. DCI Li goes up to investigate what turns out to be another dead body. The pilot refuses to make an emergency landing. Li and Nolan sit back down.

The protagonists are convinced there are powers working behind the scenes and the deaths are not accidental but are left unable to do anything. With not much else for them (or the audience) to do, they gradually begin to bond, but any chemistry they have feels dead on arrival. Beyond the vegan meal gag, there is not a laugh to be had.

Fortunately, the action does periodically cut to London, where MI5 are investigating those suspicious deaths. Lesley Sharpe’s director general Delaney steals the show, and all she has to do is fling about a few zingers. Li’s journalist half-sister Jess (Jemma Moore) pokes around what might link the deaths to the British and Chinese governments.

Pie in the sky: Can you really get reception up there? (ITV)
Pie in the sky: Can you really get reception up there? (ITV)

But these scenes are not fleshed out. Dowling’s script seems to favour scenes of characters rampaging through economy to business class and back again. Intergalactic director Kieron Hawkes is behind the camera and has overlaid the entire show with a bulbous and clunky score that is routinely blasted out to hammer home that we are approaching a key moment.

And while Li and Nolan do seem to eventually be piecing things together faster than their MI5 counterparts, all their guesswork takes place in what feels like real time. Aka, very slowly indeed.

And it’s all just a bit boring. As the characters soon find out, there are only so many places onboard a flight to have a conversation. The cockpit and lobby are soon worn out and Hawkes has to ration scenes in the hold until episode three.

Jing at least brings energy to the part of the proactive detective but on the confines of a plane she can only use that energy by repeatedly standing up, pacing around and sitting down again.

Red Eye desperately wants to be Locke, Steven Knight’s 2013 thriller where Tom Hardy’s character works out his personal and professional struggles while driving down the M6.

But instead of that originality we have a tired thriller that might just about service you for a red eye flight of your own if there is nothing else on.

Red Eye will stream on ITVX and ITV1 from April 21.