Hijack review: Apple TV+ thriller makes for an effective star vehicle for Idris Elba

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Idris Elba plays against type as Sam Nelson, a manipulative crisis negotiator playing both sides when a plane is taken hostage in Apple TV+ thriller Hijack

Hijack is less a life-or-death thriller, and more one that’s always balanced on a precipice just before that: not life-or-death but about to be, revelling in the uneasy détente between plane hijackers and their unwilling passengers. The Apple TV+ series opens with a quick but effective sketch of a plane and its passengers – the young family with restless children, the nervous flier, the businessman in first class, the put upon stewardess – all making the journey from Dubai to London Heathrow. Several of the passengers aren’t what they seem, though, and they’re scarcely out of Dubai airspace before men with guns are threatening the pilot to take control of the plane.

In the middle of this is Sam Nelson (Idris Elba), a corporate lawyer and professional negotiator – someone brought in during the final days of mergers and acquisitions, mediating contracts and ironing out the final details of high-stakes arbitration. He’s pointedly not an action hero, and he’s quick to dismiss fellow passengers’ ideas to try and fight the hijackers and take back the plane; instead, he’s trying to talk circles round the hijackers, vying to take control of the situation if not the plane itself, doing his best to initiate contact with the ground control before anyone notices and warn them that something is amiss. 

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Elba isn’t playing against type here, not exactly, but Sam Nelson feels a little like a subversion of his usual roles nonetheless (and particularly of the type of role a name as generic as “Sam Nelson” evokes). There’s an interestingly manipulative, self-serving quality to Sam Nelson – he’s willing to throw the other passengers under the bus, so to speak, if he thinks it’ll help him gain that little bit greater influence over the situation, at times more inclined to try and endear himself to the hijackers than his fellow captives. “I don’t want to help you,” he says. “But if it buys me a bit of credit, if it means the next time you’re waving that gun about you focus on the guy next to me and not me, then guess what?”

It’s a strong performance, as tends to be the case with Elba, and indeed as is necessary here – Hijack is very much built around its lead first and foremost, finding only relatively limited space in its canvas for the rest of the cast. It’d be unfair to say that Hijack is disinterested in them per se, but few of those other passengers – from the nervous flier to the stewardess – tend to develop much beyond that aforementioned initial sketch. Some, like Ben Miles’ Captain Allen or Neil Maskell’s lead hijacker, make a little more impact than others, but for the most part Hijack is a very singularly focused show. 

Idris Elba as Sam Nelson in Hijack (Credit: Apple TV+)Idris Elba as Sam Nelson in Hijack (Credit: Apple TV+)
Idris Elba as Sam Nelson in Hijack (Credit: Apple TV+) | Apple TV+

In fact, actually, where Hijack struggles is when that focus strays – not from Elba to the other passengers, though, but from the plane to the various flight control teams monitoring them from the ground. It’s easy to appreciate why that outside perspective might’ve been desirable, but it’s often unnecessary – Hijack does most of its best work within the confined space of the plane, evoking real tension out of the passengers attempts to silently communicate information between one row of seats to the next without drawing attention to themselves. Each cut back to the ground crew, gradually starting to real something is wrong, just distracts from that.

Worse still, actually, it tends to undercut much of the tension that’s been created up to that point – while Hijack is, generally speaking, well-directed, it doesn’t always have a strong handle on itself as it flits between different locations. It’s obvious how, on paper, watching the flight control team struggle to connect a zoom call might heighten proceedings; here, it strays further and further into extraneous detail, with lengthy scenes dedicated to not just the flight control team but also their childcare arrangements, worlds away from the story ostensibly at the heart of the show. It has the secondary effect too of diminishing the strength of Hijack’s real time conceit, as though the ticking clock at the heart of it all is put on pause from time to time. 

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Ultimately, Hijack makes for an entertaining thriller, if also one that might’ve benefitted from more confidence in its convictions: the real-time conceit and limited locations are strengths worth doubling down on, not something that needs to be balanced out. (If there was a need to bulk out the script beyond the action thriller, Hijack might’ve benefitted from imitating Doctor Who’s Midnight, embracing the claustrophobia of it all and putting the passengers at each other’s throats as well.) As is, though, it’s largely more compelling than it’s not, demonstrating that a (thriller set on a) plane is a good a star vehicle for Idris Elba as any other. 

Hijack begins on Apple TV+ on Wednesday 28 June, with the first two episodes available to stream at once. I’ve seen 4 of an eventual 7 before writing this review. You can find more of our TV reviews here.

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