Given the explosion of nostalgia-driven sequels, spinoffs, and remakes inspired by the streaming gold rush, it would be understandable to assume that “Tokyo Vice“ is an HBO Max companion piece to the Michael Mann-produced TV series “Miami Vice,” which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1989. That show somehow hasn’t yet been revived beyond a single Mann-directed 2006 feature film, and now “Tokyo Vice” even boasts Mann as both its executive producer and its pilot-episode director. But this new series is far more “prestige TV” than Mann’s prior show — for better and worse.
“Tokyo Vice” is based on journalist Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir and follows a fictionalized version of Adelstein, an American attempting to make it as a newspaper reporter in Japan around the most recent turn of the century. Despite some fluency in the language and culture, Jake clashes with a very different set of journalistic expectations as he investigates entwined yakuza-related stories, including a series of apparent suicides.
Initially, Jake acts against the wishes of his exacting editor, and if it sounds like this character still maintains the trappings of a cocky rogue cop, you’re getting an accurate picture — though Ansel Elgort, the befuddled-looking young actor with a bad reputation, isn’t quite Michael Douglas in “Black Rain.” Jake’s eagerness is probably supposed to be likably tenacious with a ruthless edge; instead, Elgort often gets caught between puppyish and vaguely sinister. The “West Side Story” actor has an alien quality — Jake knows a lot of local customs, but he always bows as if he’s suddenly remembering at the last minute — that’s both appropriate to the material and off-putting to watch.
Shoring up his resemblance to a hotshot cop, Jake gets a de facto partner/mentor in the form of Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a veteran detective on the Tokyo police force. Hiroto eventually agrees to slip information to Jake, who is flummoxed by the strict formality that exists both at his job (where reporters all dress in suits and are not expected to print any crime information not explicitly supplied by cops) and in the relationships he observes between law enforcement and the feuding criminal families. The weathered but dogged Watanabe, somehow capable of appearing both sincere and sardonic at once, is a highlight, as is a similarly shaded Rinko Kikuchi as Jake’s unsmiling editor. When she comes to the foreground in the fourth episode, she settles down Elgort’s antsy weirdness even as she gives the plot an extra jolt of urgency in their scenes together.
Though Jake is the show’s shaky focus, “Tokyo Vice” regularly breaks from his point of view to flirt with the sociological sprawl of a bigger crime series. There are scenes exploring the inner workings of the yakuza, and a prominent subplot for Samantha (Rachel Keller), an American hostess at a high-end club in the red-light district who intersects with several other characters, including Jake. Some of this is compelling.
Some of it is also pretty workmanlike, and while comparisons to Mann’s work may not be entirely fair, the show does invite it by having him attempt to set the tone, with a pilot that feels a bit more atmospheric than much of what follows. Director Hikari (“37 Seconds”) recaptures some of that in a pair of later episodes, but in the five installments supplied for review (of eight total for the first season), “Tokyo Vice” suffers from familiar prestige-TV pacing: the master plot moves slowly while taking up too much space for the show to develop more potentially episodic elements. (The real ongoing season-long mystery of contemporary crime shows: Where did all the cases of the week go? This goes double for a show about journalism, where working the crime beat isn’t supposed to entail myopically pursuing One Big Story.)
Series creator J.T. Rogers obviously isn’t aiming for a Tokyo crime procedural; he seems interested in how the characters’ downtime bleeds and blurs into their chosen professions at this particular time in history. Yet while the show’s promotional materials stress a “late ‘90s” setting (and the real Adelstein started at a Japanese newspaper in 1993), the period details are so far into that decade — there’s a whole scene discussing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, rooting the action firmly in 1999 — that it effectively comes across more like the early 2000s.
If this is a nitpick, it’s nonetheless indicative of how “Tokyo Vice” often feels more elusive than evocative. Tensions tighten sporadically, then go slack again. Atmosphere thickens, then dissipates. For what should be an immersive tour of multiple Tokyo ecosystems, it’s a curiously halting, uneven ride.