Review: Idris Elba is riveting in Apple thriller ‘Hijack’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Hijack' on Apple TV+

Since launching in 2019, Apple TV+ has become a source of comedy with “Ted Lasso,” “Trying,” “Shrinking” and “Platonic.”

However, the streamer has recently brought its “A” game into more dramatic territory, from sci-fi series like “Severance” and “Silo,” to the riveting new airline thriller miniseries “Hijack,” which drops Episode 4 on Wednesday. Having seen all seven episodes in advance, I promise you will not be disappointed.

The weekly series follows a talented corporate negotiator named Sam Nelson (Idris Elba), who boards a last-minute flight from Dubai to London in the hopes of reconciling with his estranged wife Marsha (Christine Adams) and son Kai (Jude Cudjoe). When a group of criminals hijacks the seven-hour flight, Sam must use his negotiating skills to broker a peaceful end to the chaos aboard Kingdom Airlines Flight 29 before they all die.

Since his breakthrough role as Stringer Bell in HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-2004), Elba has earned four Emmy nominations for the BBC’s “Luther” (2010-2019), a BAFTA nod for “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013) and an NAACP Image Award nod for “The Harder They Fall” (2021), not to mention voicing tigers in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Jungle Book” (2016) and punching lions in the summer creature feature “Beast” (2022).

It’s a shame that Elba never got to play James Bond, because “Hijack” proves his ability to project brains and brawn. The negotiator role would have been hard for others to pull off, requiring a rare blend of gravitas and stoicism, but Elba is the man for the job. He speaks slowly with purpose, convincing the hijackers that he’s an asset while secretly working strategies in a fascinating game of mental chess with lead hijacker Stuart (Neil Haskell).

Jack McMullen gives a standout performance as Lewis, who seems to have the most heart of any of the hijackers, especially compared to Aimée Kelly as Jamie, who shows extreme paranoia of the passengers’ movements. Ben Miles is intentionally unlikable as the pilot, Captain Robin Allen; Kaisa Hammarlund is a believable underdog as co-pilot Anna Kovacs; and Kate Phillips is a liability as the flight attendant Collette Fisher with a shady past.

The life-and-death chaos on the plane is intercut with the parallel action of concerned officials piecing together clues on the ground, including Eve Myles as air traffic controller Alice Sinclair at London Heathrow Airport, Archie Panjabi as Zahra Gahfoor of the S015 Counter Terrorism Command, and Max Beesley as Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel O’Farrel, who is dating Elba’s estranged wife but still wants to do the right thing to save him.

Directed by Jim Field Smith (Amazon Prime’s “Truth Seekers”), the drama is naturally more riveting in the skies than it is on the ground — there is only so much tension you can build with government officials talking in situation rooms — but head writer George Kay (Netflix’s “Criminal”) does his best to expand the danger out into the streets by showing the origin of the hijackers’ criminal enterprise and slowly unveiling their ultimate nefarious goals.

Sure, you might have seen some of this before. The comedy “Airplane!” (1980) memorably spoofed “Zero Hour!” (1957) and “Airport” (1970-1979) before Hollywood gave us Harrison Ford in Wolfgang Petersen’s “Air Force One” (1997) and Nicolas Cage in Simon West’s “Con Air” (1997) both in the same year. Let’s also not forget Jodie Foster in Robert Schwentke’s “Flightplan” (2005), which was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).

Since then, the 21st Century has given us Denzel Washington in Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” (2012) and Tom Hanks in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” (2016), but the best of the bunch probably remains Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” (2006), the tragic true story of 9/11 heroism by Todd Beamer and the brave souls aboard Flight 93 who fought back against their hijackers to crash their plane into Shanksville, Pennsylvania, with the final words, “Let’s roll.”

For many folks, it will always be “too soon” to watch an airline hijack series as the traumatic horror of 9/11 is never farther away than simply closing our eyes. In many ways, two decades still feels like yesterday, but if 22 years is enough time for you to watch the genre again for fictional escapist thrills, “Hijack” is about as good as it gets.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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