West Side Story’s Ansel Elgort is making his television debut as American journalist Jake Adelstein, who gets himself invested in the undercover world with the Tokyo Vice police squad and eventually becomes enamored with the country’s criminal organization. The pilot is directed by veteran Michael Mann, who’s crafted classics such as Collateral and Manhunter. The HBO Max series has just released the first three episodes of the first season; however, is Tokyo Vice worth watching following the pilot episode?
Tokyo Vice is…interesting. First, this is a gorgeously shot episode, which isn’t much of a surprise given the fact that Michael Mann is the one helming it. Every shot gives more intimate stories about characters or the world, and more importantly, it makes you want to understand this different country that’s rarely explored in American television. Ansel Elgort is a talented actor. He was superb in West Side Story and Baby Driver; Unfortunately, he’s incredibly bland in Tokyo Vice. There’s nothing to his character that really wants you to get to know more about him. The idea of a fish out of water is nothing new, but given the fact that Tokyo isn’t a world that’s showcased a lot in American media, it’s actually a strong idea to base his character on it. What are the rules of this world? How does it differ from America? It’s clear that the fish out of water story is told with Jake, but it’s not really played up to the point where it’s effective. Jake has seemingly adjusted well to the culture already. He speaks perfect Japanese. He’s going out to clubs and has no issues getting a job in the new country. Tokyo Vice would’ve been better off focusing on Jake’s transition, as it’s fascinating to see how this foreigner adjusts to this new life.
Sure, Eimi gives him a hard time for his foreigner status, but she isn’t doing anything different that the typical boss wouldn’t do. He never truly feels like an outsider and the story doesn’t move fast enough to get you invested in his arc or character. This isn’t me saying that Tokyo Vice is bad. There’s actually several interesting supporting characters who would’ve been better off serving as the lead. Eimi is clearly struggling to deal with a high-level job and it would’ve been cool to get from her perspective how she survives the world as a woman leading such a male-dominated position. Not surprisingly, the crime bosses have a level of intrigue about them that demands more exploration. It would’ve been great to get more in-depth about the dangerous world of the Japanese Yakuza coming from one of the members themselves. Or at least an undercover police officer. Tokyo Vice has so many interesting characters, even the American prostitute that Jake talks to at the karaoke bar. It’s just a shame that the focus is on the most boring character in this world as Tokyo Vice is dragged down a couple of notches because of that. It doesn’t help that Elgort doesn’t bring a level of charisma that makes you want to spend more time with him.
What makes Tokyo Vice interesting is the world surrounding Jake. There’s plenty of fascinating layers that does get you excited for what’s to come in the season. How does the Yakuza operate? Are they the same like American gangs? One of the police officers state that there is no such thing as murder in Japan. He explains why, but it could’ve been a great avenue to dig right into. Behind the neon lights and beautiful scenery is a dark and grim world, so why isn’t murder considered in Japan? Are the cops being paid off by the Yakuza? Or does everyone fear getting entangled with such a dangerous world? This is an imperfect world, and this should’ve been a great juxtaposition for a foreigner who doesn’t necessary understand how it works. It’s just a shame that it really doesn’t. Despite how negative this review is coming across, I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted to press play on the second episode. As I previously stated, the pilot is not bad whatsoever and the first hour went by pretty quickly. The rich lore of Tokyo Vice is what I’m invested in and it’s something worth watching further past episode one. Just be aware that Jake is a bland protagonist. If you love Michael Mann’s past works then you’ll likely enjoy the presentation of Tokyo Vice. However, if you don’t particularly care about what happens then it wouldn’t be much of shock because the driving force of the series just isn’t worth spending time with.