'Tokyo Vice' review: Ponderous Ansel Elgort thriller lacks drama

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Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice. (Starzplay)
Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice. (Starzplay)

With all the precision of a veteran auteur, Miami Vice's executive producer Michael Mann brings oriental syndicates and Western sensibilities together in Tokyo Vice. A limited series which lands on Starzplay from 15 May, headlined by Ansel Elgort (Jake Adelstein) and Ken Watanabe (Hiroto Katagiri).

Based on a memoir from Jake Adelstein, who spent most of his career in Japan reporting on street crime, much of Tokyo Vice is given over to establishing context.

By embracing the creative decision to divide dialogue between native Japanese and English, authenticity is assured while West Side Story star Ansel Elgort is able to immerse himself in character.

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A solid two hours is devoted to grounding Jake in this environment, where he studies for the entrance exam into national newspaper Meicho Shimbun, before letting off steam in local clubs. In the opening episode, directed by Michael Mann (the Heat filmmaker's first directing gig since 2015's misfire Blackhat), atmosphere and interactions are the focal point of a show which foregoes momentum for ambience.

Samantha (Rachel Keller) and Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)
Samantha (Rachel Keller) and Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)

There is a real adherence to cultural dynamics early on, as Jake co-exists on the bustling streets of Tokyo and audiences get to see him live out an average day. Aside from an opening segue, which acts as a foreshadowing catalyst of what comes later, these opening episodes could almost be considered mundane.

For a limited series called Tokyo Vice, with someone like Michael Mann behind the camera, this show remains suspiciously light on action. Following on from the cliche which sees Jake become the first foreign correspondent to write for a native publication, further formula follows, as he is singled out based on race.

Watch a clip from Tokyo Vice

With stunning production design courtesy of Kikuo Ohta and Jeff Mann, either on purpose-built sets or on location, Tokyo Vice drips with decadence. Opulent interiors add a degree of isolating wealth to any Yakuza interactions, while the house of Hiroto Katagiri has a more homely vibe.

For the most part, a lot of the supporting roles feel underwritten, which leaves some actors having little impact dramatically. Again, this has nothing to do with the story which hinges on organised crime corruption and press manipulation.

Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)
Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)

Samantha (Rachel Keller) is one plot thread which is casually introduced as a bridge between cultures, connecting with Jake early on as he stumbles into a private club looking for leads. Despite a separate set of agendas, her character never fully coalesces with the central story, existing instead alongside more minor characters in disparate sub-plots. However, she is granted enough screen time to make Samantha worthy of interest.

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Jake is equally driven, as his investigative instincts get him in trouble with the higher ups at the newspaper. Which in turn leads to an eventual association with crooked cops inside the police department. However, despite the numerous twists and turns which Tokyo Vice takes, it feels like something is lacking dramatically.

Jake Adelstein (Ensel Elgort) and Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)
Jake Adelstein (Ensel Elgort) and Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)

This could have been a long form version of The Year of Living Dangerously, or something akin to Year of the Dragon. One an underrated Mel Gibson headliner from 1982, while the other remains a sadly overlooked Mickey Rourke classic helmed by Michael Cimino in 1985. Instead, this gritty urban thriller feels strangely sanitised and unduly subdued.

Elsewhere, few of the supporting actors outside of Sho Kasamatsu’s Sato or Kosuke Tanaka’s Tin Tin create any chemistry. Brooding menace and casual smoking are no substitute for subtle nuance or dramatic understatement. A problem which is exacerbated by the pedestrian pacing of this ponderous thriller.

If Tokyo Vice is an incisive journalistic expose with lashings of Triad trouble, then why do any dangerous encounters feel so unthreatening. There may be a turf war between opposing factions, but where is that overbearing tension and perpetual sense of unease. These are characteristics which seem essential when it comes to creating this type of series, yet for the most part they are sorely lacking.

Jake Adelstein (Ensel Elgort) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)
Jake Adelstein (Ensel Elgort) in Tokyo Vice (Starzplay)

Having headed into Tokyo Vice in the knowledge that creative credentials were abundant, this revelation is both unexpected and unwelcome. There is no doubting the potential of this premise on paper, but lavishing praise on something just because it carries Michael Mann’s mark of approval is unjustified.

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To be clear, performances across the board in Tokyo Vice are solid, but it lacks any ability to actively engage an audience. Polished production design and virtuoso camerawork aside, this simply takes too long getting off the blocks. Leaving audiences in dramatic limbo until close on three hours in, when some sense of momentum offers hope for those still watching.

Others may have labelled this a gritty urban thriller laced with oversaturated excess, but on this occasion such hyperbole feels both unwarranted and unduly extravagant.

Tokyo Vice premieres on Starzplay from 15 May.

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