Written by George Kay (Netflix’s recent adaptation of “Lupin”) and directed by Jim Field Smith (“Butter”), “Hijack” opens with the last passengers boarding a 7-hour flight from Dubai to London. One of those last people on board is Sam Nelson (Elba), who exchanges a few texts with his ex-partner that make it clear that things are a little rough on the home front. She even tries to encourage him not to come to London. He ignores that instruction and ends up on a flight from Hell when the ride is captured by five kidnappers. Led by a stoic gentleman named Stuart (an excellent Neil Maskell), the kidnappers appear to have a highly coordinated plan, including a way to emotionally manipulate their way into the cabin, though Kay has a habit of analyzing the information in a frustrating way. For several episodes, it’s not even clear what the kidnappers’ intentions are or what they hope to achieve (a file named “Demands” appears more than halfway through the series), which could theoretically add tension by making us to feel like bewildered passengers on an airplane, but the show so consistently drifts away from the ship that it just starts to feel like a cheap gimmick.
Instead of locking us in our seats with Sam and the rest of the hijacked passengers, “Hijack” jumps to the UK to also include the people who will try to stop a tragedy from happening. “Torchwood” star Eve Myles plays Alice Sinclair, one of the air traffic controllers who first realizes the severity of what’s happening on the flight. Myles gives a smart, no-nonsense performance, often the voice of reason explaining the dangers of any escalating situation—usually the logical thing to do would be to shoot the plane out of the sky. Most of “Hijack” consists of Sam trying to lower the stakes of the hijacking so that it doesn’t happen, which makes for some of the most interesting writing and performances from Elba. If the British government – or the Hungarian government they’re flying over – suspect they may have another 9/11 on their hands, they won’t hesitate to kill everyone on board. Elba shows how much his character’s background as a business negotiator makes him aware that he may have to give in to his tormentors at times just to keep everyone cool.
Sam and Alice aren’t the only ones on edge, as the Home Secretary and other British power players debate what to do with an out-of-control plane bound for one of the world’s biggest cities. These scenes are politically admirable, but ultimately serve as a detriment to “Hijack” by lowering the tension every time we leave the plane. Similarly, Neil Maskell is solid as a cop who gets deeply involved in the case with a connection he already has to Sam, but his arc also serves to clutter more than anything else. “Hijack” definitely works better when it’s Elba vs. Maskell, and I wished for more nice scenes between the two actors instead of subplots about what was happening on the ground.