The first episode of Tokyo Vice moves like a wildcat stalking the streets. It’s almost entirely set to music — not overpowering, but percussive and steady. Quick, assured cuts keep time on-screen, giving snippets of American Jake Adelstein’s (Ansel Elgort) life in Tokyo. We know, from the brief prologue, that in two years he will find himself staring down yakuza who will want him dead. Now, in 1999, he is just a lonely white man in Tokyo, diligently applying himself to the language, the culture, the city, and the very beginnings of a career as a reporter. Then the episode ends. The cat slumbers. Perhaps it will wake again, but it won’t be anytime soon.
Created by J.T. Rogers, HBO Max’s new crime series owes a lot to its pilot. An adaptation of the memoir by real-life writer Jake Adelstien and his account of the Tokyo underworld as a crime writer from abroad, Tokyo Vice gets a mesmerizing start thanks to a first episode directed by Michael Mann of Heat fame, whose sensibilities tie a busy script into a rhythmic and quietly relentless hour of television. This is in spite of the fact that the gulf between the story’s tense prologue and its proper beginning seems impossibly broad, as it introduces a painfully plain protagonist as our window into a crime story.
The pilot introduces viewers to Jake as he begins work as low level crime reporter. Almost immediately, he develops a hunch that two of the first violent deaths he’s assigned to write up are connected in some way. Without his bosses’ knowledge — and often to their ire — he begins an investigation of his own, grazing the edges of a simmering gang war in danger of boiling over, and gaining the attention of an unlikely partner, detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe).
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 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.
Adelstein lacks definition, a character whose hubris and youth leads to casual fuckups in the newsroom and in the field, yet one who finds himself in moments of opportunity because of those fuckups. This makes him a wildly frustrating protagonist, as it’s his plucky Americanness that gets him into and out of trouble, and nothing particularly specific to his character.
It’s conceivable that, as Tokyo Vice gets closer to that pressure-cooker prologue, the sense of danger made palpable in the pilot will return, and Adelstein’s narrative prominence will recede as his more interesting subjects take the fore. Unfortunately, the first three episodes — which launch together today, with the rest of the 10-episode season dropping weekly, two episodes at a time — are all an exercise in lost momentum, a glimpse at a fading underworld loath to offer any perspective on it. Maybe the wildcat was just a tabby the whole time.
The first three episodes of Tokyo Vice are now streaming on HBO Max. Two new episodes drop every Thursday.