Idris Elba's Tense Real-Time Plane Thriller 'Hijack' Is Nail-Biting and Swiftly Addictive Viewing

The actor everyone would like to see as 007 tries to stop terrorists on a Dubai-to-London flight in this new Apple TV+ series.
Sarah Ward
July 07, 2023

Whether Idris Elba will ever get to slip into James Bond's tuxedo is still yet to be seen, but the British actor adds another prime example of why he'd be excellent as 007 to his resume with Hijack. He plays suave and smooth, calm and collected, and resourceful and reliable in the plane-set Apple TV+ thriller series — as well as enterprising and creative while endeavouring to save lives and bring down nefarious forces alike. He's also basically in Idris Elba on a Plane, sans slithering snakes; Idris Elba Cancels the London-Bound Apocalypse, but without kaiju and giant robots; Die Hard with Idris Elba, though never just crawling around in a singlet; and, given that the seven-parter unfurls in real time, 24: Idris Elba as well. Unsurprisingly, Elba is excellent in a taut, tension-dripping nail-biter that's easy to get addicted to.

Fresh from battling lions in Beast, granting wishes in Three Thousand Years of Longing, returning to Luther in Luther: The Fallen Son and popping up in Extraction II, The Wire alum plays Sam Nelson, a seasoned negotiator on his way home to the UK from Dubai. It can't be underestimated or understated how crucial that Hijack's biggest star is here. Cast the wrong person as Sam, and the show might've plummeted. When terrorists take over the flight, the series' protagonist boasts the ability to get everyone from pilots and crew to agitated flyers, wannabe saviours and air traffic control on his side. Sometimes, the hijackers join in on following his lead and taking his advice. Even if action movies have long relied upon heroes with such swagger and sway, trying to pull it off here without someone of Elba's charm and confidence would likely struggle (see: the Liam Neeson-led Non-Stop, and recent Gerard Butler flick Plane).

When he disembarks Kingdom Airlines Flight 29, Sam just wants to try to patch things up with his estranged wife Marsha (Christine Adams, The Mandalorian) and spend time with his teenage son Kai (Jude Cudjoe, Halo) — aims at the top of his list before he has any inkling that this won't be an ordinary journey. Then fellow Brit Stuart (Neil Maskell, Small Axe) and his gun-toting team (Here Comes Hell's Jasper Britton, The Duke's Aimée Kelly, The Souvenir: Part II's Jack McMullen and TV first-timer Mohamed Elsandel) seize control of the aircraft before the first hour of the flight has passed. To stay alive, and to also attempt to keep the other passengers safe, Sam has no choice but to step in. Action formula dictates that he does indeed have a particular set of skills that come in handy in the situation: his way with words.

Onboard, anxiety spreads fast from the pilot (Ben Miles, Tetris) down. Tracking an hour of the ordeal per episode, Hijack gets its audience experiencing the stress, chaos and life-or-death stakes in tandem with Sam and the rest of the flight's hostages — and, crucially, establishing the in-the-air space and figures that the series has to play with. The show jumps between seating classes, exploring how the ordeal affects everyone from the comfortable to the crammed-in. It ensures that viewers understand who's sitting where, and how their different personalities might have an impact. The series stalks through the aisles, making sight lines and escape routes plain, and also hovers in crew areas. In other words, it puts its various pieces in place, proving expertly aware that suspense springs not just from waiting and anticipating, but from knowing which elements could factor in. 

Hijack makes slick and skilled use of its main setting, but it isn't a one-location-only affair. Also getting nervous: people on the ground across several countries, all attempting to work out what's going on. Marsha and Kai are among them; the former notes that "when it all kicks off, Sam's the best at handling it", but also asks her new cop beau Daniel O'Farrell (Max Beesley, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre) to investigate after she receives a cryptic text from the air. The police officer enlists British counter-terrorism via his ex-partner Zahra Gahfoor (Archie Panjab, Snowpiercer), while various aviation bases also start realising that all isn't right, including at Heathrow where Alice Sinclair (Eve Myles, We Hunt Together) is a flight controller.

Creators George Kay (Lupin) and Jim Field Smith (Litvinenko) are masterful with tone and twists, keeping the pressure up from go to whoa and never letting the plot cruise on autopilot. Together, Kay (who writes) and Field Smith (who directs) also created the interrogation-focused Criminal, and bring the same flair for teasing out pivotal details — not just in conversation, but visually as Hijack flits between the plane and terra firma. This isn't a whodunnit, put it does reward sleuthing, tasking its audience with puzzling together what's really going on, who can truly be trusted and how the show might land. Again, Apple TV+ is in its mystery element, as everything from SeveranceThe AfterpartyBlack Bird and Bad Sisters to ServantHello Tomorrow!, High Desert and Silo keeps illustrating.

In hooking viewers, and quickly, Kay and Field Smith are also well-versed in the kind of series they want Hijack to be. Pivotally, they're clearly familiar with the conventions and cliches that the show is leaning into, what's soared there before, and how to do it well. Having Sam rely upon the power of persuasion first and foremost might seem like a small touch, but it's an important one: Hijack wouldn't last seven hours, or keep watching eyes invested, if guns just kept blasting and fists flying. Even an aircraft-set John Wick instalment mightn't make that work ( although who wouldn't want to see that franchise — and only that franchise — try?).

All the focus on talk also gives Hijack another vital angle: it sees its characters as people, rather than merely using them a means to move the plot along. Accordingly, it dives into their complications — some more than others, and no one more than Sam, but enough to examine the many complex ways that humans behave, especially in such high-strung circumstances. This is a show that's well aware that we all have baggage, and that it's with us at every turn. Thankfully, most of us aren't forced to work through it at 35,000 feet while being held hostage, but that exact scenario with Elba at its centre makes for riveting viewing.

Check out the trailer for Hijack below:

Hijack streams via Apple TV+.

Published on July 07, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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