Red Eye review: Richard Armitage is yet another mysterious stranger in this ridiculous ITV thriller

The term “red eye”, used to refer to shorthaul flights that depart in the evening and arrive in the morning, comes from the bleary passengers who would disembark and stumble straight into the office. It does not apply – however much the team behind a new ITV six-part thriller would like you to believe – to flights from Heathrow to Beijing, which take 10 hours and have a seven-hour time difference. No matter, though, because this lack of attention to detail is far from the most ridiculous part of Red Eye.

When Dr Matthew Nolan (Richard Armitage) arrives back in the UK, he is promptly arrested. Sporting an inconvenient knife wound to his flank and a sore neck from a car crash, he is informed that the Chinese authorities want him returned to Beijing to answer for the death of a woman found in the wreckage of his car. But as far as Nolan can recall, he was alone at the time of the crash. Chinese-British police officer Hana Li (Jing Lusi) is ordered to escort Nolan back on the “red eye” flight (which visibly departs during daylight hours). “I haven’t lived there since I was five years old,” she tells her superior. “I have never been back and have no desire to.” But soon enough she’s on a Beijing-bound flight with a handsome, handcuffed prisoner – and only then do things really start to go wrong.

They say that potboilers unfolding over real time on a flight between the UK and Asia are like buses: you wait for ever, and then you have to review two at once (or, at least, that’s what we say in my household). Following hot on the heels of Idris Elba’s Hijack, a fun but preposterous thriller on Apple TV+, Red Eye takes a similar approach. Locked away in this capsule hurtling across Europe, Hana and Nolan watch on as passengers start dropping dead. Part whodunnit, part conspiracy thriller – wholly ludicrous.

But ITV is committed to this sort of fare, increasingly eschewing the gritty realism of the BBC in favour of shows like After the Flood and Passenger, all of which are a bit barmy in their own way. Red Eye is anchored by some rather vapid geopolitics – China is negotiating to build nuclear power plants on British soil, so the craven government consents to Nolan’s ad hoc extradition – but really exists only to get an unlikely duo to start fighting crime at 30,000 feet.

Lusi is well cast in the lead role, bringing a tough, weary edge to a character who could have been too competent to be emotionally grounded. Armitage, on the other hand, must be desperately bored of playing the same role (good-looking but slightly mysterious bloke) in every show. It is functionally the same character as he played in Fool Me Once and Obsession, both of which were released in the last 12 months. The idea is that, over the course of a flight that involves little time to watch Oppenheimer or put on your compression socks, they go from a frosty relationship to one based on mutual survival instincts. “You left a girl to die, and your money and white privilege make you think you can get away with it,” she tells Nolan, but soon enough, they’ll be fighting baddies together.

The above quote might also give you some idea of the quality of the writing on Red Eye. Creator Peter A Dowling has previously been responsible for some less-than-lauded films (including Samuel L Jackson vehicle Reasonable Doubt, and Black and Blue with Naomie Harris), but his best-known work is the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan, which also unfolds on an airliner. It’s a strange niche to carve, and Red Eye is necessarily more expansive, bringing in a journalist, Jess (Jemma Moore), trying to break the story without breaking her family ties, and Lesley Sharp as the head of MI5, Madeline Delaney. But the B-movie timbre remains, as though all that matters is the delivery of a few cheap thrills rather than the generation of any sustained tension or investment in the characters’ lives.

Richard Armitage must be desperately bored of playing the same role in every show (ITV)
Richard Armitage must be desperately bored of playing the same role in every show (ITV)

“You trust me enough to have me help you, but not enough to let me know what’s going on?” Nolan asks in frustration, as the flight spirals out of control. “Something like that,” Hana replies. In another, more ambitious version of Red Eye, the prisoner might be just another hindrance to a young detective trying to do her job. But Red Eye is not ambitious. Silly, sure; derivative, yes; but just about watchable – even if only in the way that the in-flight map is watchable after a few too many bloody marys.

‘Red Eye’ is on Sundays at 9pm on ITV