This article contains minor spoilers for the first episode of “Tokyo Vice”.
For fans of director Michael Mann – the auteur esteemed responsible for several crime genre masterpieces – it’s been a long seven years. Since his last feature “Blackhat” opened in January 2015 to mixed reviews and abysmal box office performances, Mann has been missing and hasn’t achieved anything since.
Fortunately, the wait is now over. While still in pre-production on his next movie, “Enzo Ferrari,” Mann used some of his spare time to direct the first episode of “Tokyo Vice,” a crime drama that recently premiered. on HBO Max.
Right away, anyone familiar with the great director’s work and concerns can see what drew him to this project. Throughout his career, Mann has been drawn to stories of urban loners, often working in or in opposition to law enforcement, who are dedicated to excellence in their profession at the expense of almost everything else.
For this reason, Jake Adelstein — Ansel Elgort, cast before troubling sexual assault allegation was made against him – quickly strikes one as a quintessentially Mannian protagonist. A budding journalist in late 1990s Japan, Adelstein hails from Missouri and hopes to report on the details of crime and policing unfolding in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo.
As a Jewish American with a penchant for questioning authority, Adelstein immediately stands out as a sore thumb in the newspaper offices where he eventually lands a job. During his first staff meeting, he is mistaken for a tourist by his new boss. A few scenes later, a member of law enforcement approaches him roughly and accuses him of being a spy. The young American clearly has no place here.
This becomes even clearer when, after digging and writing about the details of a brutal stabbing, he is chewed out by his superior for not strictly adhering to the content of the official police report in his article. With his distinctly white features automatically revealing him as an outsider in this newspaper’s closed societal ecosystem, his individualism and tenacity only reinforce that impression with everyone around him.
When another man is found dead, that victim having burned himself to death, Adelstein begins to investigate the circumstances and connections between the two deaths, eventually linking the fiery suicide to Tokyo’s fearsome Yakuza.
As far as the plot goes, it’s about as far as the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” goes. This inaugural offering is far more concerned with setting up the series’ atmosphere, characters, and general social environment than it is with unfurling loads of narrative incidents. Fortunately, these are all areas in which Mann excels.
Right off the bat, viewers familiar with Mann’s distinctive vision will spot hallmarks of his cinema. His style of editing and shooting is wonderfully intact – the director makes fine use of the offbeat close-ups, disorienting cuts and shallow focus photography, which have become his trademark.
Mann also does an impeccable job of portraying Tokyo’s urban environment. In a single hour of television, he takes the time to evocatively describe Japan’s nightclubs, public transportation system, law enforcement, criminal underworld and media industry, giving the public a vivid idea of all these ecosystems and places through details, gestures and images.
If there’s anything that holds this television episode back from greatness, it’s the fact that it lacks the certain dramatic satisfaction one usually expects from a piece of television or film. The best films Mann has made build and build, eventually reaching a unique cinematic crescendo of action and emotion.
As the first episode of a series, the “Tokyo Vice” pilot naturally carries different expectations and dramatic demands. It is, by its nature, majority constituted. Still, it can be hard not to wish this hour of television didn’t suffer from a hint of an anticlimax.
Even so, Mann’s direction alone is enough to make the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” highly recommended. His mastery of visual storytelling continues to be formidable, bringing particular satisfaction to those who have waited years to see him bring his distinct brand of craftsmanship to a new story. While it’s disappointing that Mann won’t return to direct future episodes of the series, the setup he provides in this pilot will likely be enough to keep viewers coming back for more.