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Michael Mann gives HBO Max's Tokyo Vice a mesmerizing start that it quickly squanders

  • The acclaimed director helms the pilot of the HBO Max crime series from creator J.T. Rogers, based on journalist Jake Adelstein's memoir. Mann's "sensibilities tie a busy script into a rhythmic and quietly relentless hour of television," says Joshua Rivera, who adds: "Tokyo Vice slows considerably once the style of that first episode subsides and the work of being a show begins. The problem is one of perspective: by positioning itself as a journalist’s story, the series begins at a level of remove from the crime plot it wants to tell about the simmering tensions between two competing criminal organizations that Jake eventually stumbles upon. Viewers have to watch Jake take his application exam and interview for his first reporting job, and patiently wait as his ambition to rise above the police blotter and break his own news collides with a culture that is not his own and an underworld he doesn’t understand. While the script does Jake Adelstein’s character few favors, the performance from Ansel Elgort feels calibrated for something else entirely — in the pilot, we see him getting lost in the culture of his host country but there’s very little revealed about him except his cold, driven, and ambitious nature. He is a cipher, but not one that unlocks any compelling shades to the world around him — and when juxtaposed with the world-weariness of (Ken) Watanabe’s detective Katagiri, the vigor of his reporter colleagues, or the hostility of the criminal element he’s flirting with, Elgort reads as flat. Pouring salt in the wound is the way he only seems to come to life in a romantic subplot with one of the show’s few white stars, Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow American now living in Tokyo as a hostess."


    • A Tokyo-set show centered on two white characters seems archaic in 2022: Ansel Elgort and especially Rachel Keller are "likable enough, acting as audience surrogates in an unfamiliar, at times dangerous place," says Patrick Ryan. "But it's impossible not to wonder why we're spending the bulk of our time with these two characters, both of whom are saddled with clunky dialogue and cliched backstories (estranged from their parents, running from trauma – you get the picture). And judging by the recent successes of foreign-language thrillers Money Heist, Lupin and Squid Game on Netflix, as well as 2020’s Oscar best-picture winner Parasite, it’s been proven time and again that you don’t need white, English-speaking stars to draw wide viewership. With that in mind, the centering of Jake and Samantha's storylines seems more archaic than genuinely arresting. For all its visual pleasures, Tokyo Vice is guilty of sidelining its most fascinating characters. And with so many other streaming shows fighting for our attention, that’s a punishable offense."
    • Tokyo Vice knows its setting well: "Let’s give praise, first and foremost, for a television show that knows its place," says Shane Ryan. "By that, I don’t mean it in the colloquial sense, as in 'understands its limited role and sacrifices ambition for workmanlike success.' I mean it literally: a show that knows its place. In the case of Tokyo Vice, the new crime series from HBO Max, they had the courage to put the actual place in the title, which sets a high bar. And it’s a bar they clear, easily; Tokyo is front and center, and in the episodes made available to critics—the first of which is directed by Michael Mann—the drama co-exists with a celebration of all things Tokyo, from the big, bright karaoke bars to the dimly lit side alleys. To know your place, as a writer and director, is to love your place, and though I’ve never been to Tokyo, I’ve also never encountered any work of art that makes me want to go so badly. We’ll talk about many characters in the paragraphs to come, but Tokyo is the biggest, boldest character of them all, and it comes off complex, mysterious, alluring, and indomitable."
    • Tokyo Vice is reminiscent of Lost in Translation: "Tokyo Vice arrives on HBO Max wrapped in layers of nostalgia, beginning with its title, which sounds like a come-on from Cinemax’s late-night heyday," says Mike Hale. "It’s a reasonably tasty hand roll of yakuza drama and turn-of-the-millennium American coming-of-age tale, and it is generous with the condiments that combination promises: full-body tattoos and missing fingers, point-and-shoot cameras and bonding over the Backstreet Boys. It also indulges in a full measure of Western fetishizing of Japanese cool and the notion of Tokyo as the world’s most stylish den of sin, in a way that occasionally recalls the movie Lost in Translation, which came out around the time the series is set. Hostess and host clubs, love hotels, picturesque alleys around the corner from shimmering seas of neon — you know the drill. And like Lost in Translation, with its voluptuous, melancholy romanticism, Tokyo Vice finesses its exoticism by asserting a distinctive style — in this case the moody, atmospheric naturalism of Michael Mann, who directed the pilot (one of three episodes premiering on Thursday) and helped set the look and rhythms of the series."
    • Tokyo Vice avoids some stranger-in-a-strange-land clichés, but suffers from a milquetoast centerpiece: Tokyo Vice "at least has a serious-minded approach to its outsider narrative and enough texture and specificity to mostly keep the narrative from going to the places you expect and maybe fear that it will go," says Daniel Fienberg. "Still, Tokyo Vice has a bland, mushy center, a product of performance and presentation more than writing, and a pervasive and unavoidable sense that at no point is the camera following the storylines that deserve the most attention."
    • Tokyo Vice asserts itself as a significant new entry in the crime-drama canon: "Executive producer Michael Mann, who directed the pilot, is putting himself out there in a striking way: Comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable to Miami Vice, the stylish 1980s serial he produced, as well as to the 2006 feature film of the same title he helmed," says Daniel D'Addario. "Mann’s sense for the visual language of temptation — conveying vice both as a scourge to be eliminated and as a decadent pleasure — enriches Tokyo Vice. So, too, does his understanding of hierarchies, within both the criminal and legitimate worlds." D'Addario adds: "And say this much for Elgort, a controversial figure off screen after allegations of sexual assault surfaced in 2020: On screen, he’s able to avoid many of the pitfalls into which an actor who looks like him on a Japan-set series might have fallen."
    • Tokyo Vice is a sizzling slow burn: “Tokyo Vice may prove too slow for mass audiences, and there are multiple moments where it feels like we’re following the least interesting character," says Ben Travers. "Rogers shows less concern for developing distinct individuals than he does exploring Japan’s criminal underbelly, but if you can accept Jake, Hiroto, and Emi as dark horse heroes, fighting for truth and justice in a corrupt city, the series steadily finds its groove as a hard-boiled noir. The later episodes make room for key reveals, sobering action, and even a few laughs, giving hope that Tokyo Vice can start firing on all cylinders before the end. But there’s still more than enough sizzle to invest in Mann’s latest slow-burn study of criminals and their would-be keepers."
    • Tokyo Vice suffers from familiar prestige-TV pacing: "The master plot moves slowly while taking up too much space for the show to develop more potentially episodic elements," says Jesse Hassenger. "(The real ongoing season-long mystery of contemporary crime shows: Where did all the cases of the week go? This goes double for a show about journalism, where working the crime beat isn’t supposed to entail myopically pursuing One Big Story.) Series creator J.T. Rogers obviously isn’t aiming for a Tokyo crime procedural; he seems interested in how the characters’ downtime bleeds and blurs into their chosen professions at this particular time in history. Yet while the show’s promotional materials stress a 'late ‘90s' setting (and the real Adelstein started at a Japanese newspaper in 1993), the period details are so far into that decade — there’s a whole scene discussing 'I Want It That Way' by the Backstreet Boys, rooting the action firmly in 1999 — that it effectively comes across more like the early 2000s."
    • Tokyo Vice’s clear-eyed love for a bygone era where men are men, dames are dames, and cigarettes are sweet is both the show’s best and worst feature: "This is a Michael Mann-ian throwback for better or worse. It’s a classic story told well but it doesn’t present any new tricks in the TV noir category," says Alec Bojalad. "Part of the reason why Tokyo Vice feels a little dated is because it is. The series is based on the real adventures of Jake Adelstein, an American journalist from Missouri who made a life for himself in Tokyo and ultimately published an action-packed 2009 memoir about his time there called Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. Had Tokyo Vice, the TV series, arrived closer on the heels of Adelstein’s memoir, it may have had an easier time finding its place among the crowded TV landscape. For one, TV was far less competitive in the early 2010s but also the show’s depiction of the professional journalism class feels even more ancient than its 1999 timeframe. It hews far more closely to the ‘70s All the President’s Men era rather than our current content-saturated market."
    • Tokyo Vice works thanks to Ken Watanabe: "Much of the marketing for Tokyo Vice (five episodes of which were provided for review) has focused on Ansel Elgort, who is unremarkable as journalist Jake Adelstein, an American expat who begins investigating the yakuza and its involvement in a series of suspicious suicides. But it’s Watanabe and the show’s other Japanese actors — primarily Rinko Kikuchi, Shô Kasamatsu, and Hideaki Itô — whose performances and character backstories are compelling enough to overcome the slightly repetitive dialogue and sometimes workmanlike direction," says Roxana Hadadi. "To a certain degree, Tokyo Vice is telling a story about modern-day Japan that you may think you already know. The point of entry into such stories is usually a white person (as in Kate and The Outsider), someone who at first gazes upon Japanese customs with a doe-eyed 'What’s up with that?' mentality before adopting them as their own. The country’s yakuza, or organized-crime syndicates, have been stylish bogeymen in pop culture made by non-Japanese for a long time (Kill Bill, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). And that duality of white protagonist with Japanese baddies is sometimes about as deep as these stories go, a fear initially caused by Tokyo Vice as well — until Watanabe shows up."
    • Tokyo Vice offers a stylized tour of Japan's criminal underworld: "The first thing to be said about Tokyo Vice is that it's exceedingly pleasurable to watch," says John Powers. "The pilot was made by Michael Mann who's always known how to capture the treacherous seductiveness of cities, be it the South Beach of Miami Vice or the LA of Collateral. Setting the visual template, Mann's restlessly sharp eye captures Tokyo's intriguing swirl, from its shadowy backstreets and glamorous watering holes to the teasing neon that paints the night."
    • Tokyo Vice is canny and suspenseful, despite basking in cliché: "Like many of the most effective adventure stories," says Robert Lloyd, "Tokyo Vice does not shy from cliche; it’s a basket of tropes, familiar not only from police procedurals and newspaper dramas, but gangster films and Western: the rookie reporter and the veteran cop, each chafing against the conservative strictures of their superiors; the screaming editor who wouldn’t know a good story if it were laid out in 20-point type and taped to his face; a dance hall girl looking for something better; a good guy bonding with a bad guy; old-school mobsters with a sense of honor facing competition from less scrupulous rivals."
    • Speaking in Japanese and English, Ansel Elgort lives up to the charisma he was supposed to bring to Baby Driver and West Side Story: Elgort beams "with excitement as he gum-shoes his way through the Tokyo underworld," says Matt Schimkowitz. "But his best moments occur sitting across the table from his colleagues, trading horror stories over beers, cigarettes, and sushi. (It’s admittedly difficult to see Elgort’s charms through the cloud of controversy that stalks his work.) Jake’s personal life is the show’s weakest element. J.T. Rogers teases the journalist’s Missouri roots as he avoids calls from mom and listens to taped messages from his sister. We need Jake’s motivations for working in Japan, but these character breadcrumbs feel like prestige-series obligations, not answers. Rogers leads us towards a big reveal, but Jake’s history fails to hook."
    • Tokyo Vice is simple but entertaining as a Michael Mann vehicle: "Though playwright J.T. Rogers presides as showrunner and a handful of directors organize themselves under a sleek house style, the bonding agent between Vices is still Mann’s pet fascinations," says Charles Bramesco. "The fastidiousness of men doing difficult, detail-oriented jobs represents the core appeal of a show focused on the finer points of its procedural elements, for both journalism and police work. As in most of Mann’s film output, the line between law enforcement and crime grows hazy in the muted respect the opposing factions have for one another’s expertise. And it’s entirely possible that Mann brought his talents to Tokyo for no other reason than it is the city with the highest number of immaculately tailored suits per capita. Loyalists to the unprolific auteur will be overjoyed that he’s still doing his thing within the parameters set for him, like a jam band hiding snippets of their greatest hits in an hourlong medley. Everyone else will be pleased to find that this is all more accessible to the uninitiated than that analogy might suggest."
    • Tokyo Vice's pilot is exactly as good as you might hope for from an accomplished filmmaker like Mann: "The story is tightly composed, with an abundance of nervous energy radiating from every scene," says Remus Noronha. "That tension and urgency are perfectly captured by Elgort in his performance. After the first episode, the pacing slows down a little, but the quality of the narrative definitely does not. That’s when we start to learn about Jake’s complicated relationship with his family. Familial conflict is a recurring theme in the show, with a number of characters who have chosen to cut off their family and their past in order to chase their dreams. The next two episodes, directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka (The Terror), actually manage to pull you deeper into the story. And by the time you get past Episodes 4 and 5, which are helmed by award-winning director Hikari (37 Seconds), all you can think about is what’s going to happen next."
    • Tokyo Vice's pilot is another Michael Mann masterpiece: "Confession: I’m interested in HBO Max‘s new drama Tokyo Vice for one reason and one reason only, and that’s director Michael Mann," says Meghan O'Keefe. "The American auteur, celebrated for films like Heat, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, Blackhat, and Miami Vice, puts his signature style into the show’s pilot episode and immediately elevates the whole project with his poetic take on the masculine gaze. Mann has a way of inviting the audience into the point of view of his male heroes that makes us feel their ambition, fear, lust, stress, and self-loathing all at once. He uses the camera to visually position his heroes as lone wolves standing up for a cause and soundscapes to subtly tug on our emotions. Tokyo Vice‘s throwback setting and vibe — following a young white American journalist crusading for justice ’90s Japan — could be extremely off-putting to 2022 audience. But Mann’s style helps us sink into the tensions of this world. The Tokyo Vice pilot is yet another one of Michael Mann’s gorgeous triumphs and is a joy to watch for his direction alone."
    • How Tokyo Vice differs from Michael Mann's Miami Vice
    • Jake Adelstein ran the gamut bringing his story to the TV screen: "While it’s not rare for TV productions to have complicated journeys, Tokyo Vice has traveled a particularly circuitous route. Challenges included an eight-month pandemic shutdown, along with bureaucratic red-tape and what (executive producer Alan Poul) diplomatically described as the 'many cultural and psychological obstacles' involved with filming a large American production on the streets of Tokyo," explains The New York Times' Erik Augustin Palm. "Of course, Adelstein, also an executive producer, endured worse after breaking the story at the core of his memoir. The book details the dangerous and chaotic period that followed his explosive exposé about Tadamasa Goto, the head of the yakuza family Goto-gumi who was known as 'the John Gotti of Japan.' The piece revealed how Goto sold out his gang to the F.B.I. in order to jump the queue and get a liver transplant in the United States, ahead of U.S. citizens. Adelstein received death threats after the article was published, during a time when gangsters were more tolerated — and even celebrated — by Japanese society."
    • Ken Watanabe on why he joined Tokyo Vice: "It's been a long story," he says. "When I played The King and I on Broadway, director Bartlett Sher introduced me to J.T. Rogers. 'He has a big and good project. Could you join about this?' And then I heard about the story. Cops busting gangs is a little boring, and the usual story. But there were two big points: A young American boy comes from United States, a newspaper writer getting underground to meet the gangs and the cops, and the hard experiences he has. It's so good. And then, the background is 1990. It's a big change of a society. Analog to digital, and feeling people's feelings about society change, it's like chaos. Those were the two big points (that convinced me) I want to join this project. And then J.T. Rogers wrote my character so he's really mysterious. It's color like a gray: Not white, not particularly black, where it's a good guy or bad guy. It's like in between. Really interesting."

    TOPICS: Tokyo Vice, HBO Max, Ansel Elgort, Jake Adelstein, J.T. Rogers, Ken Watanabe, Michael Mann