TV: Hijack

On The Wire, Idris Elba made an early mark as Stringer Bell, one of TV history’s most fascinating, memorable schemers. Apple’s Hijack is the best “mastermind” vehicle for him in years, capitalizing on both his leading man bona fides and his talent for thoughtful, smartest-guy-in-the-room roles. He plays Sam Nelson, a financial negotiator who makes his living closing high-stakes deals between powerful parties in opposition. In Dubai, Sam boards a jet bound for London, much to the distress of his ex-wife Marsha (Christine Adams), who is trying to move on from him. Unfortunately, Sam’s decision to return to England gives him a first-class seat from which to view an elaborate terrorist hijacking. The ultimate aim of the hijackers, led by a ruthless British national named Stuart (Neil Maskell), are unclear. But Sam, an observant man with a knack for assessing all the angles, quickly decides to insert himself into the situation. Deploying considerable powers of persuasion, he starts to influence the hijackers by analyzing their methods, anticipating their problems, and…helping them to solve them. Or is he? Like most of the passengers, Sam seems to just want to get through the experience alive, and outwardly approaches the “negotiations” from a wholly pragmatic standpoint. But as the situation grows increasingly dire, his bald self interest is challenged by escalating, life-and-death decisions rife with thorny ethical baggage.

Oh, there’s no denying Hijack comes from the 24 “School of Elaborate Scenarios Contrived for Optimal Urgent Conflict.” Fortunately, it absolutely graduates from that school, summa cum laude. It’s a first-rate, tautly paced action thriller that handily juggles the conflicting motivations of its huge roster of bottled-up passengers, crew members, and terrorists, not to mention the air traffic controllers, police, and political figures on the ground racing to respond to the crisis. Ultimately, the foundational circumstances underlying the action are ludicrously Machiavellian, a dense weave of hopelessly entangled leverage calculated to maneuver the characters against each other and generate maximum suspense. But this shallow motivating substance doesn’t detract much from the classily executed style. Like its genre progenitors—24 and Mission: Impossible being the most obviousnarrative strategy runs a distant second to plotting tactics, which are constructed just convincingly enough to fuel the clockwork drama without derailing it. None of it works, however, without Elba’s shrewd, nuanced central performance, which balances nicely on the line between accessible hero and unreliable narrator. He receives key, B-story ground support from the likes of Adams, Max Beesley, Hattie Morahan, Eve Myles, and Archie Panjabi, among many others, while the plane theatrics consist of too many excellently rendered players to list.

Are the gripping story mechanics of Hijack wildly far-fetched? Absolutely. But there’s also a thoughtful thematic core to it, and it delivers a perfectly mixed cocktail of disaster thriller beats and procedural puzzle-solving. Elba’s load-bearing, thinking-man’s heroics are the powerful, central pillar sustaining a breathless binge.

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