Review by Sean Boelman
Based on journalist Jake Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, Tokyo Vice is a new procedural drama that is entertaining if messy in its execution. There have been plenty of films and series like this before, yet even though this doesn’t add anything new to the formula, it’s well-done enough to recommend.
The series follows an American expat journalist living in Tokyo who sets out on a mission to take on one of the city’s most powerful crime bosses. Part journalistic drama and part yakuza crime saga, there are a lot of moving pieces here that are interesting, even though they don’t all come together as well as they could (at least not in the first five episodes).
Admittedly, the show doesn’t do much to explore its potential themes about corruption. Instead, the series has the same “gray area between good and evil” material that makes up the crime drama genre regardless of setting. As a result, the series does feel somewhat dated despite a modern setting.
Oddly enough, Adelstein’s storyline is far and away the least interesting of the main plots in the show. The more interesting storyline is that of a hostess in the red-light district who has a precarious connection with the world of organized crime. It’s not a particularly original storyline by any means, but it is pretty cinematic.
The series does take a lot of time in its buildup, for better or worse. There are some interesting things bubbling beneath the surface in these first five episodes, but it is mostly setting up the tensions which will come to a head by the finale. It doesn’t have the breakneck pace of the potboilers that inspired it.
Perhaps the biggest sin of the show is that it wastes the talents of Ken Watanabe. The seasoned actor gets some good moments, but they are too few and far between to leave much of a lasting impact. The supporting cast shines, though, with strong turns by Rachel Keller, Ella Rumpf, and Rinko Kikuchi.
Stylistically, the series is nice and gritty, exactly what one would want from a neo-noir like this. The rest of the series does struggle to live up to the high precedent set by Michael Mann’s direction in the first episode, and while it never matches that level, it’s consistently competent and atmospheric.
Tokyo Vice hits the ground running and starts to stutter a bit after the first few episodes. There are some solid casting choices and a good visual style here, which is enough to elevate its sometimes formulaic writing.
Tokyo Vice streams on HBO Max beginning April 7, with new episodes debuting subsequent Thursdays. Five out of eight episodes reviewed.