Without a first class Idris Elba, airborne thriller Hijack wouldn’t get off the ground

A new Apple TV+ miniseries sees Idris Elba aboard a hijacked commercial flight and trying to negotiate the passengers to safety. The results are neither hard-edged enough to be compulsive, nor silly enough to be camp, finds Katie Parker.

In the age of streaming, few have conquered the limited thriller series quite like the British. From Bodyguard to Vigil to The Night Manager, to various others that should have been limited series, the cold, creeping, restraint of the English lends itself particularly well to suspense and tension, that over the years has proved time and time again to hold audiences and critics in its thrall.

Created by frequent collaborators George Kay and Jim Field Smith, who wrote and directed the series respectively, Hijack is the latest of these to enter the market—and with a high concept plot, highbrow sensibilities (for a thriller at least) and beloved Brit Idris Elba as the leading man, it seems like a recipe for success so precise it can’t go wrong—which is perhaps why Hijack so easily and disappointingly settles into a decidedly unriveting state of cruise control.

Kicking off as a slew of passengers, mostly British nationals, board a packed commercial flight from Dubai to London, the show’s title tells us these are lambs to the slaughter—but of course, they don’t know that yet.

Among them is Sam (Elba), a slick and smooth businessman who, having wrapped up some important, lucrative (but unspecified) business, just wants to enjoy his first-class voyage home where he plans to woo his estranged wife with duty-free goodies.

Sadly, this is not to be—and no sooner have the 200 passengers boarded than things take a turn for the worse, as four of their apparently unrelated fellow flyers (Neil Maskell, Mohamed Elsandel, Aimée Kelly and Jasper Britton) suddenly and violently stage an armed takeover of the plane. Commandeering the cockpit and confiscating the passenger’s phones, the hijacker’s goal is unclear—and, as you can imagine, everyone on the plane gets incredibly freaked out.

Everyone that is, except for Sam. Roused from his travel-weary stupor yet remarkably unphased by the drama unfolding around him, something is unlocked; he springs into action; and the mysterious, elite business that brought him to Dubai is revealed: Sam is a corporate negotiator.

But Sam is not just any corporate negotiator. Sam is the best corporate negotiator there is, a man so professionally skilled in the art of corporate negotiation that there is no situation he cannot successfully negotiate—including this one. And so that’s exactly what he does, taking the controversial approach of not trying to thwart the plane’s hijackers, but attempting to reach a solution that all parties find acceptable—which, at least initially, means helping them carry out their hijack as smoothly as possible.

This is not a popular course of action. The hijackers are confused. The other passengers are confused. All parties are begging him to please, for the love of God, sit down and shut up. But Sam knows better and no matter how many haters his high-risk, universally disliked strategy may draw, the safe arrival of flight KA29 depends on him being as cool, quick-witted, and conciliatory here as he is in the boardroom.

Told in real-time across seven one-hour episodes à la 2000s-era thriller series 24, Hijack attempts a similar feat of suspense and tension across its much tighter runtime, while seeking to subvert the outdated and xenophobic politics touted by its predecessor. Crossing intermittently to the goings-on on the ground, where Sam’s son (Jude Cudjoe), wife (Christine Adams), her new lover (Max Beesley), and various air traffic security people gradually catch wind of the mayhem happening in the air, the series alternates between the unfolding crisis in the sky and the logistical nightmare on land, as everyone scrambles to figure out what to do about the hijacked plane heading towards one the world’s most major cities.

Slick, sleek and as meticulously appointed as Sam’s first-class cabin, Hijack is a curiously hollow affair that, after doing an awful lot of setting up, never actually seems to take off. With a huge cast of characters, including a plane’s worth of passengers, assorted cabin crew, numerous air traffic control officials, an office full of politicians and public servants, Sam’s immediate family and various tangentially related associates of the hijackers, a huge amount of time is dedicated to moments that have ultimately little to no payoff—and, while there are a few twists along the way, the plot is gradually revealed to be almost maddeningly formulaic. Sam’s decision to try and help the hijackers using skills one could acquire from a LinkedIn learning course, while often inadvertently hilarious, unfortunately does not itself offer enough of a new spin on the subject matter to justify just how few surprises are to be found as the action unfolds.

Which is not to say Hijack is wholly unworthy of a watch and, if approached with appropriate expectations, is perfectly and almost artfully diverting. Paired with a glass of wine and a sudoku puzzle, you might even find it quite relaxing. It’s the thriller version of ambient TV—oxymoronic perhaps, but not entirely dissonant in the age of the term “cozy horror”.

Turning in yet another admirably assured performance as a sexy and chill man who can thankfully take care of everything while everyone else loses their mind, Elba is almost entirely responsible for how entertaining Hijack manages to be—and while one does wish he’d make some more interesting, riskier choices, it’s a role he can deliver on in his sleep, outshining everyone except perhaps Maskell who, while underused, is as brilliant as ever.

Neither hard-edged enough to be compulsive, nor silly enough to be camp, Hijack is stylish, competently crafted, and inexplicably determined to never really get off the ground.