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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    ‘Hijack’: Idris Elba is cool as a cucumber, at gunpoint, in the unfriendly skies

    The airborne thriller “Hijack” on Apple TV+ unfolds in real(ish) time when a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London is hijacked. One of the passengers is played by Idris Elba, the coolest customer in these not-so-friendly skies, who uses his talents as a corporate negotiator to talk down this group of high-strung criminals and save everyone on board.

    It’s a British series (cocreated by George Kay, whose credits include “Lupin,” and director Jim Field Smith) but “Hijack” is indebted to a long line of similarly-themed Hollywood thrillers, from “Air Force One” to “Con Air” to “Non-Stop.” In a different era, this would have been a movie as well. There’s no reason it isn’t — it’s ridiculous, actually — except that streaming platforms are all too happy to stretch out any premise imaginable, whether it works for the story or not.

    The problem is, you can only sustain this kind of “what are they going to do!” suspense for so long. Seven 45-minute episodes? Too long. Stories like these are contingent on a tight, high-tension energy driving them, and it’s too bad “Hijack” misunderstands that because the series is pulpy and gripping in the early going: “Die Hard” in the sky. I was into it! Better than your average in-flight entertainment! But it’s a bad sign when you get to the last few episodes and think: Shouldn’t we have wrapped this up already? A long flight is one thing; a long story about said flight is … well, optimistic about audience attention spans.

    Optimism is also the name of the game when flying, even if few experiences are as aggravating as commercial air travel. You’re stuck, cheek to jowl, for hours on end with strangers who have decided this is when they’ll unleash their worst anti-social behavior. People refusing to use headphones or shoving their emotional support animal under the seat. The stress of traveling with your kids. The stress of traveling alongside somebody else’s kids. It’s a lot. And the airlines haven’t helped any.

    I’m not sure the show’s creators really take advantage of this new normal, of people acting worse than ever when crammed on a plane. The videos that get shared on social media are wild and Kay and Smith really could have played around with that more. But of course, your typical airborne nonsense becomes irrelevant when a handful of passengers start brandishing guns and take over the flight. The culprits are referred to only as “those now in charge,” as if they’re collectively the hijacking equivalent of Voldemort.

    Elba plays Sam Nelson, our reluctant hero who is estranged from his wife and jets home in the hopes of winning her back. He’s sitting in first class. Of course he is. The plane has 200-plus other souls on board, but Sam isn’t driven by a sense of noble responsibility; as he keeps telling everyone, he’s stepping up because he just wants to get home to his family.

    On the ground, there are a lot of annoying people who aren’t taking this seriously. Not at first anyway, including Sam’s wife and teenage son. The pilot calls in an emergency, then says, whoops, nope, everything’s ducky, and a reasonable person at air traffic control might think: Huh, that’s unusual, let’s make a note and keep an eye on things. But there are so many red flags ignored until eventually enough people realize something is very wrong on board this flight, and when they finally get it together, they really get it together: “Let’s be clear, this has all the makings of an international tragedy!”

    The show is saddled with a good deal of narrative hogwash and none of it would work without Elba, who is carrying this entire thing on his calm shoulders with a performance that blends low-key charisma and a mildly misanthropic personality. He’s the hijack whisperer. Also pretty effective at keeping his fellow passengers in line. Great in a crisis, but also subtly funny because Elba, being Elba, can do so much with a look. Early in the trip, when his seat mate starts rambling about his business startup, Elba turns his gaze back to his phone as if staring into the abyss and asking himself: What did I do to deserve this fate?

    A little kid goes missing at one point. On a plane. How does that happen? It’s ludicrous. This should be more entertaining than it is. One of the flight attendants is having an affair with the pilot. Someone actually says, “Is there a doctor on board?” More effective are the low-fi methods devised by the passengers and flight attendants to surreptitiously pass messages from the front of the plane to the back, and vice versa.

    The story loses tension and momentum as it flies into the last few episodes, stalling in much the same way the British politicians and security experts on the ground are stalling in the hopes that the plane will land before they have to comply with the hijackers’ demands. The ending includes one last surprise problem for Sam to contend with, but the final moments just don’t land.

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