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Tokyo Vice looks amazing but has serious pacing problems
Tokyo Vice, HBO Max's new crime drama series, opens with a TV cliche I'm incredibly tired of seeing: an opening scene that flashes forward to a moment of high drama at the end of the story in an attempt to hook viewers. Off the top of my head, I can think of three very different recent shows that have done it (WeCrashed, 1883, and The White Lotus — surely you can think of examples of your own, too). It's supposed to be intriguing, but it usually comes off as a cheap and artificial way to create suspense. The White Lotus creator Mike White told Vulture he opened with a mysterious dead body because people didn't watch his previous shows, so he put it in as bait. Producers feel like they have to spoon-feed viewers a hint about the destination, because they either don't trust the audience to follow along on the journey or don't have confidence in their story's ability to grab people from the beginning.
Tokyo Vice opens at the end in order to assure the audience that the story is going somewhere, because the show sets it up so slowly that the payoff sometimes feels like it will never come. Tokyo Vice suffers from the dreaded streaming-era phenomenon of "ten-hour-movie-itis," where writers and directors think that the length of a TV show gives them the opportunity to tell a story in greater depth but in practice they're just bloating a movie script in a way that doesn't lend itself to episodic TV. If Tokyo Vice was the movie it was originally conceived as (Daniel Radcliffe was attached to star in the mid-2010s), the setup would take about 30 minutes. But in eight-episode show form, Tokyo Vice doesn't really get cooking until the third episode, when after two episodes of circling each other, young American newspaper reporter Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and veteran Japanese organized crime detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) start working together to get to the bottom of a string of mysteriously connected crimes.
The good news is that Tokyo Vice is enjoyable even when it's moving at a slow pace, because it's executive-produced by Michael Mann, the brilliant director and the man most closely associated with the "___ Vice" title construction. Mann, the executive producer of the classic crime series Miami Vice and director of excellent nocturnal thrillers like Heat and Collateral, directs the pilot, and his mastery of thriller technique is on full display. He uses all of his signature tools — handheld cameras, fast cuts, off-center framing, and dense sound design, to name a few — to create a sense of energy even when nothing much is happening. The first episode is all about Jake securing and starting a job as a police beat reporter at Tokyo's main newspaper, and there's a four-minute scene where Jake takes an exam. It's unnecessarily long, but it isn't boring, thanks to the way Mann keeps the camera moving. And it almost goes without saying that Tokyo's crowded, neon-lit streets look amazing shot by the director who's most famous for the way he films cities at night. The pilot is all about setting a tone, and it accomplishes that beautifully. Directors of subsequent episodes don't quite recapture Mann's energy, but by then the pace of the story picks up enough that there's some inherent propulsion.
Tokyo Vice is loosely based on a memoir of the same name by the real Jake Adelstein, a white American reporter who moved to Japan as a young man and covered organized crime in Tokyo for years. The show is set in 1999, and follows Adelstein as he establishes himself as a hotshot reporter. His brash, American way of doing things clashes with the culture of the Japanese newspaper where he works, but he's a talented, tenacious reporter who's devoted to sniffing out the truth. He finds evidence that a string of violent incidents on the streets of Tokyo are linked to a shady loan company, and his investigation leads to him meeting his mentor Hiroto Katagiri, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department detective who also chafes at the tight cultural strictures of the institution he works for. Katagiri is trying to prevent a war from breaking out between two yakuza clans, and enlists the scoop-hungry young reporter to help him get more information about what's really going on and act as a go-between between the gangs.
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Adelstein's guide to the criminal underworld is Sato (Show Kasamatsu), a young yakuza who isn't totally sure that the gangster life is for him. Kasamatsu is the show's revelation. He has Mads Mikkelsen-esque cheekbones and vulnerable eyes that can turn steely in an instant. Jake and Sato become friendly, but they're both interested in Samantha (Rachel Keller), a tough American nightclub hostess with big dreams and big secrets. Also helping Jake with is reporting is his editor Emi (Rinko Kikuchi), who, like Jake, is an outsider at the male-dominated, chauvinistic paper.
Elgort is good as Adelstein. There's something boyishly charming about him, but also something off-putting, a feeling I admit is informed by the sexual abuse allegations against him, which became public after Tokyo Vice was in production. His vibe works well for the character, who's great at his job but cocky and entitled. "You think because you are a foreigner, the rules are different," Emi scolds him, while another colleague at the paper tells him, "You're an American, so you think you're more talented than you actually are." There are several pointed moments where he misses important things because he's not paying attention. He's a foreigner with an intense personality that clashes with the polite culture he's trying to embed himself in, which are both things that alternately help and hinder him as he tries to become a truth-telling reporter. Every character on the show, in fact, is trying to find their place in a culture they don't naturally fit into.
Tokyo Vice has some narrative problems as hard to miss as a flashing neon sign, but it's kept watchable by its slick style and strong performances until its story picks up. Once it does, it's pretty engrossing. It just takes longer than it should, and you may have checked out by then. A flash-forward to the end doesn't fix pacing problems.
Premieres: Thursday, April 7 on HBO Max (first three episodes)
Who's in it: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Show Kasamatsu
Who's behind it: Executive producer-director Michael Mann, EP-writer J.T. Rogers (Oslo), journalist Jake Adelstein
For fans of: Michael Mann crime thrillers, neon
How many episodes we watched: 5 out of 8