Hijack: Idris Elba flies high in real-time nail-biter

Coming from a long tradition that includes 24, the Apple TV offering proves there’s life left yet in the lean, mean clock-ticking machine

There’s an awful lot of love out there for the awe-inspiring ‘ooft’ of a nifty one-shot take and the TV shows or movies that deploy them (or at least appear to). But it’s been a hot minute since we’ve had a longer-form work, like the Idris Elba-led Hijack, that fully embraces the in-the-moment thrills of ‘real-time’ possibility.

Elba plays cool, calm and collected corporate negotiator Sam Nelson, headed back to London on a seven-hour flight from Dubai, hoping to mend bridges with his estranged wife Marsha (Black Lightning’s Christine Adams). Only he soon has to handle way more than her exasperation with his skillset pushed to its very limits when, you guessed it, armed terrorists take control of the plane with alarming ease. This Apple TV+ gem depicts every gripping minute across seven nail-biting episodes.

In recent (ish) years, the key comparison that leaps to mind is Kiefer Sutherland’s morally grizzled counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, with each of 24’s head-spinning eight core seasons parcelling out a very bad day in one-hour blasts.

Beginning in 2001, Bauer had to go all out to foil the assassination of Dennis Haysbert’s would-be presidential candidate David Palmer by a Serbian syndicate. It’s hard to recall, more than two decades later (!!), just how much that thriller series captured the spooked-out zeitgeist, given the horrors of 9/11 had played out on a global scale almost two months to the day before the show’s November debut, in eerily uncanny timing.

Since then, we’ve all become inured to heightened security measures at airports, with most of us whipping out our laptops way before reaching the scanner trays and tut-tutting those who haven’t yet grasped 100mm liquid limits.

Indeed, Hijack, fromJim Field Smith and George Kay, the showrunners who spearheaded euro-hopping franchise Criminal, makes much of Elba’s nonchalance as Sam strolls onto his flight down to the wire but never flustered, only carrying a jewellery store gift bag. The writing team also has an intelligent way of navigating its hijackers around these precautions in Hijack’s opening hour gambit, with the how only becoming apparent in the second hour. This cracking show’s packed with subtle, rewarding reveals like this.

Hijack makes the most of its tense time-ticking concept in two distinct ways. First, there’s the perspiration-inducing siege mentality playing out in the cabin. Stacked with likely passenger archetypes, from the annoying suit playing phone games at full volume in business class through to the flustered mum corralling kids back in cattle while getting snippy at the young woman who nabs ‘her’ overhead luggage space, we recognise these people from our own travels and get just enough of a sense of who they are to care before the guns come out. Shirley, there’s even a priest (is this Flying High! joke too deep-cut?)

Ground control

But Hijack isn’t all up in the air. There’s just as much exhilaration to be had on the ground as Smith, dividing directorial duties with Mo Ali, cuts between the passengers and crew way up high and the canny folks from Dubai to London get suss about a (gunpoint) retracted emergency call.

These include Dan (Max Beesley), Marsha’s cop boyfriend (Jude Cudjoe, as her ACAB teenage son, is not a fan), who in turn taps his counter-terrorism agent ex Zahra (The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi). Torchwood graduate Eve Myles’ air traffic controller is also on the case on the UK end, with Mohamed Faisal Mostafa ace as a diligent Dubai counterpart equally troubled by inconsistencies and unwilling to let go of his hunch. Props for his aside, when asked why he doubts the word of the calm captain (Ben Miles): ‘That’s how they sound, British people, zero emotion. It tells us nothing.’

There’s a deft dance here between the jacked-up pressure in the cabin and the well-earned release of wry chuckles thanks to these knowing nudges. Hijack also goes some way to countering concerns about 24’s racial stereotyping. This plays out with the expectation-upending bad guys and in undercutting the prejudices of a pair of older blokes on board who reckon they’re way handier with counter-terrorism manoeuvres than they actually are.

An astute suit

As for Elba’s Sam, he’s an interesting character because he’s no gun-toting action hero like Bauer or Bruce Willis’ regular bad day-having cop in the Die Hard franchise. He’s a suit who uses his calculated smarts to navigate mergers, not mercenaries. But in this rich-dog-eat-poor-dog world, maybe that’s the same thing?

Elba’s adept enough to convince both when he shows his heart, calming the panicking older woman next to him in business class with the one-two ‘focus’ line: ‘You got family, loved ones? … We’ve got one job to do right now, just get through it for them,’ and when he’s mercenarily working the angles. So much so that one passenger convinces others that he’s defected. These misconceptions and power plays ripple up and down the length of the plane, and radiate out to those fighting the good fight while grounded.

Television has changed considerably in the 20-plus years since Sutherland’s turn fighting terrorists, with Hijack’s seven-hour flight in bingeable bites much more suited to our viewing habits these days than 24 weekly episodes. But the truth is the career high-flying Elba is such a majestic screen presence he could have easily carried off 17 more and then some. It all adds up to a first-class ticket. 

Hijack is streaming on Apple TV+.