This article contains minor spoilers for the first episode of “Tokyo Vice.”
For fans of director Michael Mann — the esteemed auteur responsible for several masterpieces of the crime genre — it has been a long seven years. Since his last feature film “Blackhat” opened in January 2015 to mixed reviews and abysmal box office performance, Mann has been missing in action and has not directed anything since.
Luckily, the wait is now over. While he is still in pre-production on his upcoming film, “Enzo Ferrari,” Mann has used some of the time off from filmmaking to direct the first episode of “Tokyo Vice,” a crime drama that recently premiered on HBO Max.
Immediately, anyone familiar with the great director’s work and preoccupations can see what drew him into this project. Throughout his career, Mann has been attracted to tales of urban loners, often working in or in opposition to law enforcement, who dedicate themselves to excellence in their professions at the expense of almost anything else.
For this reason, Jake Adelstein — Ansel Elgort, cast before a troubling sexual assault allegation was made against him — quickly strikes one as a quintessentially Mann-ian protagonist. An aspiring journalist in the Japan of the late 1990s, Adelstein hails from Missouri and hopes to report on the details of crime and policing which go on in Tokyo’s seedy underbelly.
As an Jewish American with a penchant for questioning authority, Adelstein immediately stands out like a sore thumb in the offices of the newspaper where he ends up securing a job. At his first staff meeting, he is mistaken as a tourist by his new boss. A few scenes later, a member of the police force brutally accosts him and accuses him of being a spy. The young American plainly does not fit in here.
This becomes even more clear when, after digging into and writing about the details of a brutal stabbing, he is chewed out by his superior for not adhering strictly to the contents of the official police report in his article. With his distinctly white features automatically revealing him to be an outsider in this newspaper’s closed societal ecosystem, his individualism and tenacity only serve to strengthen this impression for everyone around him.
When another man winds up dead, with this victim having burned himself alive, Adelstein begins to investigate the circumstances behind and connections between the two deaths, eventually drawing a connection between the fiery suicide and Tokyo’s fearsome Yakuza.
As far as the plot goes, this is about as far as the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” gets. This inaugural offering is far more concerned with setting up the atmosphere, characters and general social environment of the series than unfurling loads of narrative incidents. Thankfully, those are all areas Mann excels at.
Right off the bat, viewers familiar with Mann’s distinctive vision will spot hallmarks of his filmmaking. His editing and filming style are wonderfully intact — the director makes beautiful use of the off-kilter close-ups, disorienting cutting and shallow focus photography, which have become trademarks of his.
Mann also does an impeccable job of portraying the milieu of urban Tokyo. Over the course of a single hour of television, he takes time to evocatively portray Japan’s nightclubs, transit system, law enforcement, criminal underworld and media industry, giving the audience a vivid sense of all of these ecosystems and locations through stray details, gestures and images.
If there is anything holding this episode of television back from greatness, it is the fact it lacks the certain dramatic satisfaction one usually craves from a piece of television or film. The best movies Mann has directed build and build, eventually reaching a uniquely cinematic crescendo of action and emotion.
As the first episode of a series, the “Tokyo Vice” pilot understandably carries different dramatic expectations and requirements. It is, by its nature, predominantly set up. Still, it can prove hard not to wish this hour of television did not suffer from a hint of anticlimax.
Despite this, Mann’s direction alone is enough to make the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” come strongly recommended. His command of visual storytelling continues to be formidable, carrying particular satisfaction for those who have been waiting years to see him bring his distinct brand of craft to a new story. While it is disappointing Mann is not returning to direct any future episodes of the series, the set-up he provides in this pilot will likely be enough to keep viewers coming back for more.