At first, “Tokyo Vice” might sound like the name of some crappy show you would see upon turning on your grandma’s TV and scrolling through “Law and Order” reruns and other daytime television shows — in reality, it’s anything but. With the glamorous ambiance and neon lights of Tokyo as a backdrop, “Tokyo Vice” dives into the sinful world of Japanese organized crime, full of Yakuza tattoos, missing fingers and elaborate schemes that are juxtaposed with the American naïveté of an up-and-coming journalist who stumbles onto a story he might not be able to handle.
“Tokyo Vice” loosely follows the true story of American journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort, “West Side Story”) as he attempts to prove himself at his new job as a crime columnist for a prominent newspaper in Tokyo. A transfer student from the University of Missouri, Adelstein aims to escape Midwestern monotony and pursue his dreams of making it big in crime reporting — on the other side of the world. In the first three episodes that have been released on HBO Max, we see Adelstein wholeheartedly dedicating himself to the hustle and bustle of life in Tokyo, seemingly fully assimilated into the culture and with a surprising grasp on the language. But his ability to blend in with the Tokyo crowd doesn’t seem to carry over to his new job at the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Tokyo’s biggest newspapers for which he’s the first American to ever be hired. He’s quickly chastised and criticized by his colleagues and superiors, automatically labeled by many as a know-nothing foreigner, and somehow manages to piss off his editor (Rinko Kikuchi, “Invasion”) right off the bat. Nonetheless, Adelstein remains determined to do things his own way, chasing stories on the side and constantly getting himself into trouble. But his tenacity and journalism “spidey-senses” eventually pay off when he stumbles onto a mysterious pattern of murders linked in a way only he seems to notice, leading him to a story so big it could get him killed — or worse, fired.
Despite the darkly romantic and enticing setting of the underbelly of Tokyo, it’s hard to get past Elgort’s presence in “Tokyo Vice.” After scoring roles in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Baby Driver” that jump-started his career and earned him numerous awards and nominations, Elgort faced sexual assault allegations in 2020 that seemed like they would put him out of Hollywood’s good graces. However, his fall from grace was short-lived, and Elgort somehow manages to repeatedly secure parts in high-profile projects such as “West Side Story,” which received high praise and a grand total of seven Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting rid of Elgort anytime soon, and his presence makes a good show hard to bear.
The trope of the rookie reporter who, against all odds, discovers a world-changing story is a common one, and Elgort plays the cocky and confident newcomer perfectly. While Adelstein’s repeated fumbling failures at work and confrontations with his coworkers may have been written with the intent of capturing the pity of the audience, it’s kind of hard to feel any sort of sympathy for him due to his bumbling brand of American arrogance, which Elgort seems to naturally bring to the role. It’s like someone from costuming put a sticker on his back that says “awkward and overconfident American,” but in a way that, coupled with Adelstein’s gawkiness and eagerness to please, is sometimes endearing.
Luckily, “Tokyo Vice” brings more than just Adelstein’s occasionally irritating character to the table. It has an intriguing setting, which builds off of decades of Yakuza and mob movies, and a mysterious and driving plot, which expertly hooks viewers with slow-building intensity and great side characters. These characters range from Adelstein’s goofy and lighthearted friends at the newspaper, to enigmatic and enchanting host club worker, Samantha (Rachel Keller, “A Man Called Otto”), to the tall, dark and handsome member of a prolific crime family (Shô Kasamatsu, “Love You As The World Ends”). Hopefully, with time, Adelstein’s character can finally learn the ropes and break out of his gawky and awkward shell. After all, the timeline of the show spans two years. That has to be enough time for Adelstein to grow into a well-behaved and seasoned journalist — right?
Although Adelstein’s repeated office faux pas and incessant enthusiasm can be a little difficult to watch, his character, however obnoxious, fits perfectly into the trope and storyline that “Tokyo Vice” is building, and with only three episodes available out of an eight-episode arc, there’s plenty of time for Adelstein to be humbled and find his place in the reporting world. “Tokyo Vice” offers an exciting premise with potential, and the cast of characters to back it up — I just wish they could have left Ansel Elgort out of it.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at email@example.com.