The ’90s are still alive and well in the skies above Europe, at least in the new Apple TV Plus series hi-jack. The twisty international thriller follows a group of passengers trying to survive a hijacking on a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London. It’s exactly the kind of mid-budget excitement that would have made for one of the most popular movies in the world 30 years ago, but has largely disappeared since. Thankfully, after five episodes, hi-jack is proof that the good old-fashioned thriller hasn’t died out completely.
hi-jack‘s band of resourceful passengers are led by the self-appointed leader Sam Nelson (Idris Elba), a closer who specializes in finishing off business deals for massive international companies. As the realities of their hijacking become clear, Nelson jumps into action, trying to pacify and negotiate with the culprits and ensure everyone on the plane makes it to the ground safely. He’s also where the show’s ’90s flair really gets started.
Like all the best Jack Ryans and regular(ish) guy protagonists before him, Sam is not ex-special forces or secretly a spy. He isn’t a badass action hero or a super genius who’s also studied Krav Maga. He just happens to do a job that involves high-pressure deal-making, and he’s very good at it. So when he finds himself in a crisis, he turns the whole hijacking into one big business negotiation, because that’s something he knows he can win.
The character also taps into an incredible strength of Elba’s, delivering convincing dialogue in a way that never lets other characters forget he’s primarily working for his own interests. Early in the show, Sam tries to convince the lead hijacker, Stuart (Neil Maskell), that he wants to help, not because he wants to hijack the plane but because he wants to survive. The camera lingers on Stuart’s face as he slowly gets beaten down by Sam’s logic and the pressure of the situation until all he can do is fall back on an uneasy kind of trust.
It’s a spectacular dynamic that the show employs well, especially in the fifth episode, when things finally get a little violent and Stuart needs to be calmed down. Sam’s always smarter than whoever he’s talking to, and both parties know it. It’s a fact that gives Sam power, but makes everyone else uneasy. When talking to him, both the hijackers and the other passengers are constantly doing the mental calculus of trying to figure out how they’re being tricked, or if Sam’s just telling a slightly venomous version of the truth.
Beyond just giving us the right kind of hero to root for, hi-jack is exceptionally good at laying out the exciting parts of a thriller in exactly the order they should be in. Questions that seem like common sense are almost always addressed by characters, and everyone takes logical steps toward solving the problems in front of them. If you’ve spotted a loophole or a clear next step, chances are someone else on the plane has too much and they’re about to say it out loud. It’s the kind of clever writing and audience trust that feels rare in modern thrillers, which too often leave open massive logical gaps to keep their tension high or over-explain every moment and let the camera linger on solutions to let the audience feel clever.
Keeping all this tension and cleverness in balance for 90 minutes is a challenge most movies can’t overcome, but hi-jack manages to elegantly spread it out over seven episodes. The show creates natural ebbs in the action and suspense, and carefully lets each episode build to its own impressively thrilling climax, without feeling indebted to the standard hourlong running time for most modern dramatic television. Sure, each episode could go on for a full hour, but most of the time the show keeps it to a brisk and entertaining 45 minutes.
everything about hi-jack feels pulled from another era, in the best way possible. From its airtight tension to its hero that would rather get out of a jam with his mouth than his fists, it feels like the return of the ’90s thriller… just on TV instead of at the movies.
hi-jack is streaming now on Apple TV Plus, where five of the season’s seven episodes have already been released.