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‘Tokyo Vice’ Review: Michael Mann’s HBO Max Crime Drama Is a Sizzling Slow Burn

If you can get past its white-savior complex (and the actor embodying it), J.T. Rogers' investigative drama makes for a sharp and engrossing crime story.

Tokyo Vice HBO Max Ansel Elgort

Ansel Elgort in “Toyko Vice”

James Lisle / HBO Max

For a show fully affixed to Ansel Elgort’s face, “Tokyo Vice” is a surprisingly rewarding endeavor. Setting aside viewers’ subjective comfort with spending hour after hour in close proximity to an actor accused of sexual assault (Elgort denied the allegations), there are at least two foreseeable issues with focusing so heavily on the “West Side Story” and “Baby Driver” star: For one, he’s not a performer oft-praised for his acute expressions. He can dance, sure, but it’s his physicality more than his flat boyish visage that’s served his projects thus far. Second, centering any story set in Japan, shot in Japan, and concerning predominantly Japanese citizens around any white American sets off alarm bells. It’s 2022. We do not need another “Last Samurai.”

Speaking of, the solution to these expected problems may have been to concentrate on Ken Watanabe instead, the Oscar-nominated supporting star of “The Last Samurai” and second-billed series regular here. His continued onscreen excellence more than merits a starring role, but “Tokyo Vice” sticks to the same perspective as its source material in tracking a fictionalized version of Jake Adelstein, the author behind the 2009 memoir “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.” Such choices may put the series in a hole some viewers won’t peer into, and that’s fair. Still, anyone familiar with Michael Mann’s knack for off-center close-ups, who trusts in his steady excavations of unsavory men, should find “Tokyo Vice” a compulsive watch, even after the “Miami Vice” auteur exits the director’s chair.

Skipping past the miscalculated in media res opening (really, it’s best if you skip the first five minutes), the premiere picks up in 1999, as Jake studies for his qualifying exam at the Meicho Shimbun newspaper (a fictional stand-in for Adelstein’s first employer, Yomiuri Shinbun). He pours through Japanese economics books on the bus ride to his day job as an English language tutor. He crams at a local restaurant counter, studying weather patterns until he’s too brain-dead to do anything but rage-dance at a local club. But he passes, and soon he’s assigned to the same starting desk as all young journalists: the police beat.

Tokyo Vice HBO Max Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi in “Tokyo Vice”

James Lisle / HBO Max

Told he’ll be writing about stolen purses and people choking on rice cakes, Jake aims higher. Rather than regurgitate police reports, he does his own digging — and gets reprimanded for it. What Jake doesn’t realize at first is that the newspapers and the police work in unison; if a victim is stabbed to death, you cannot report a “murder” unless it’s dubbed as much by the cops. And it’s rarely given that label. Why? Because the yakuza handles their own business. If the police need to make an arrest, the guilty crime syndicate will offer up one of their own, and the Tokyo police department will accept their guilt in order to keep the peace. If they don’t, war could erupt between various branches of the yakuza, and the city would devolve into chaos.

Each case requires its own negotiation, but the unspoken rules remain a constant. It’s a delicate balance, and one Jake is quick to learn but slow to accept. Soon, he encounters Hiroto Katagiri (Watanabe), a like-minded veteran on the force who helps educate the young American. But Jake’s various investigations — including his main story about an elusive corporation tied to a string of suicides — also brings him in contact with yakuza leaders, an aspiring night club owner, and various members of the city’s dangerous underworld.

Perhaps most notable about the first five episodes is their actual genre. Despite the title, the show is more “The Insider” than “Miami Vice.” It’s not a detective yarn as much as an investigative journalist drama. Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel,” “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter”) plays Emi Maruyama, Jake’s “Sub-cap” (a supervising editor, basically), and she puts a major emphasis on doing the job well, rather than simply chasing down bigger stories. Jake practically lives in the newsroom. His only friends — aside from Samantha, played by “Legion’s” Rachel Keller, who works as a hostess while saving to open her own nightclub — are two rookie reporters.

Tokyo Vice HBO Max Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice”

James Lisle / HBO Max

Mann, who only directs the first episode but executive produces the entire series, excels at introducing the audience to Jake’s version of late-’90s Japan. His patented close-ups double as establishing shots, like when Jake first walks into the newsroom and, even though one side of his face takes up a full third of the frame, we can see the entire office as he does: Row after row of tiny desks, cluttered cabinets, and suspicious colleagues are unveiled as the tight tracking shot unveils a whole new world around him. Here and elsewhere, Mann takes advantage of Jake’s height. Another shot, this one static, sees Jake leave a bar, duck under a hanging banner (only to still graze it), walk upstairs to the room above, and fill out the whole window once he turns on the light. He’s an American noticeably out of place in Japan, both in the excessive amount of space he takes up wherever he goes and in the disruption he hopes to cause with his reporting.

Mann’s inventiveness doesn’t end there. Later, there’s a great shot of a dead man’s face — only, his foregrounded expression is out of focus, and the initial emphasis is put on the trains crisscrossing behind him. Then, Mann slowly pulls back to reveal the victim has been stabbed; the railing behind him and the sword left in his chest create a similar diagonal to the trains cutting through the city behind him, and the shot becomes a visual metaphor for how thoroughly the yakuza has penetrated Tokyo itself.

Mann never directed an episode of “Miami Vice,” but as an executive producer, he’s widely credited with creating the series’ unprecedented style and tone. It’s unclear if he serves a similar role for “Tokyo Vice,” as there are notable shifts between the premiere and what follows. (J.T. Rogers is the creator and executive producer, while Josef Kubota Wladyka and Hiarki direct two episodes each.) Mann’s episode relies on visual language to convey emotional understanding and plot development. The following hours provide more spoken exposition, making sure audiences don’t get lost during the winding investigation. The premiere is also fully devoted to Jake, whereas the second hour doubles back to expand our perspective. (The cast is very strong. In addition to Watanabe’s beleaguered command, Shô Kasamatsu delivers a layered turn both seething and heartbreaking. Even Elgort is far more malleable here than he has been in the past.)

“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. 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.

Grade: B

“Tokyo Vice” premieres Thursday, April 7 on HBO Max with three episodes. Two episodes will be released weekly until the Season 1 finale drops April 28.

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