I am sure that for those who pay attention to the latest in movie news you heard of the adaptation that premiered today on Netflix. I am referring to the Netflix original movie Death Note which is adapted by the popular manga/anime. This is one of those anime that I have had the pleasure of viewing and I really fell for the cat & mouse battle of wits that the two lead characters Light and L play on one another while the entire world are caught in the middle as possible collateral damage.
This premiere comes with a bit of publicity leading up to its release due to the fact that the anime/manga features Asian characters and the U.S. adaptation on Netflix takes it out of Japan and puts it in Seattle with a dominant Caucasian cast. In other words, the term “whitewashing” has been thrown around. While I am a little bias writing this review, I will review this title based on the content of the movie from my entertainment parameters I use on all my reviews.
A quick synopsis is a student named Light Turner who is given a note book by a death God that gives him the power to write any name in the book and by doing so they will die. Light decides to use the book to rid the world of criminals and evil people to make the world a better place but these unexplained deaths brings one of the finest detectives in the world named L to bring this man to justice. Who will outsmart who and how many will die until one of them wins?
When it comes to adaptations and remakes, I am very open to artistic expression and making any core story their own as long as the root of the original is intact if you are going to take the name and its fans with you down your rabbit hole. With that being said, I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come with its many flaws.
I didn’t have too much of a problem with the actors they have chosen. Yes, there are people that could have taken these roles to new heights than the ones chosen with the exception of Lakeith Stanfield who play the great detective L. What I had a problem with was the characters they portrayed. I didn’t need the characters to do the same thing as in the anime as I remember it, but I did prefer the story to take their characters accurately regarding their persona. Light Turner, played by Nat Wolff, didn’t give me the formidable foe that I remember from the anime and Japanese movie of the same title. I remember Light as someone who is almost depicted as pure evil. While he believes he is doing the right thing, he is given a God complex with the power to take lives and has created a following of believers that welcome these deaths. He is okay with casualties of this war and of course he loses focus of his mission and now just making sure that no one outsmarts him and embarrasses him from his new-found fame. This guy is someone you don’t want to mess with and the way he used the death note you were right to fear him. This character unfortunately was watered down and while he does take advantage of his privilege he is not someone that I fear will one day take my life at any given time.
Mia who is the love interest to Light’s character is played by Margaret Qualley, was given a portrayed a role different from her anime counterpart. She has more involvement in the revolution that is “Kira” which is the name Light gives himself as the alter ego to the person who is killing all of these people. Her involvement in the anime is that she is very obsessed with Light in a Harley Quinn to Joker sort of way and their relationship was a little comedic but sad in a way because her devotion to Light was so deep that she would literally do anything to make Light fall in love with her. In this feature, she kind of stands on her own two feet which is okay, I don’t have a problem with that. By doing so, you are taking away the deep arch rival connection that Light and L has towards each other which really drives the manga to be so amazing. This story is always about Light and L and their relationship and adding Mia in the mix with how much she was involved and had influence over Light basically took the focus off of Light in a way. It also created this love story angle that really wasn’t needed in this movie. I didn’t need a love story or a conflict of interest to give us suspense or shock value. It just made the story a bit basic than what it could have been. Kudos for trying something new but this love story didn’t enhance these characters in a way that made these characters likable or to care for. That’s the thing, you are not supposed to care about these two at all. If anything, the only reason you want them to succeed or keep going so you can continue to watch this back and forth of will he or won’t he get caught game.
Which brings me to L’s character, L is probably the best and the most interesting character of the series. At least for me, I am mostly entertained by the eccentric actions done by the man who is going to bring Light to Justice. He is a little out there with his habits and mannerisms. He loves candy, the way he sits in chairs and couches is hysterical, and his wit and critical thinking is amazing to watch. You see how he deduces suspects with the little clues that he has but his methods of solving crimes are just so entertaining to watch and I think that they captured that well in this feature except for one thing, L became extremely emotional in the third act of the film making this movie more of an action chase thriller like you would see in The Fugitive instead of the calm, smart, and calculated battle with their brains that I came to enjoy from the anime series. That was the big pull for me with Death Note is that I didn’t need these big theatrics and action sequences to keep my attention. This movie could have been a podcast or radio show because it’s their dialogue and exceptional writing that is so great about Death Note that stands out between all the other anime I have watched.
Speaking of action sequences, the deaths committed in the movie was a lot more graphic than I expected. It didn’t make or break the movie but you saw more blood and guts in this feature than you would have expected and also executed in a way you would see it done in a Final Destination movie. I didn’t like or dislike it but having it definitely made this movie and Light’s choices real. These deaths were permanent and there was no coming back from it.
The character Ryuk, the death God, attached to the death note who provides the comedic relief of the project. Ryuk is a character that is more sinister than good. He doesn’t really pick a side, all he wants are granny smith apples and for the note to be used as much as possible no matter who has it. Voiced by Willem Dafoe was a great choice to play the demon. The CGI look given to him I think was pretty good. Mostly in the shadows to give him more of a creepy vibe but he was present when needed to have a presence that mattered. I will say Adam Wingard, the director, got Ryuk’s character right.
Bottom line is, this movie probably would have been best a TV series instead of a full-length film. There might have been too many elements from the series clumped into one movie. I would have preferred Light’s character to be more sinister then he was in the film. He was a bit humanized too much for me to see him as a good villain. L going off character from his morals, values, and unique characteristics that separates him from most people. If you are someone who is watching this movie and has never heard of Death Note, I believe will be okay with the outcome of this film. The concept is intriguing enough to draw anyone in but I think this movie would have gotten a better feeling if it was done more as an adult film. Even though the characters are in their teen years it doesn’t mean that it has to be in this sort of teen world the movie was stuck in. I mean these kids are killers, I don’t think they have time to deal with school issues anymore. I just wanted to see more interactions with Light and L outwitting each other. Just when you think L is close, Light throws him off and there wasn’t much of that and that is the main reason this movie failed for me. It was too focused more on the relationship between Light and Mia.
Folks who haven’t seen the original I think will be entertained by this but I will say that what you receive from the original anime and even the live action Japanese versions will give you something more deep and suspenseful to watch. So, I recommend that you see the original as well. This is also a missed opportunity to see a story adapted from Japan with Japanese actors and sadly American audiences didn’t get to see that happen. These characters didn’t have to be Asian for the story to be told but I believe that the culture that was established in the original with the environment, the laws and regulations used in that country would have been a great choice to use in this adaptation or at least used Asian actors and actresses to play the part of these characters even if it had to take place in Seattle. If you happen to watch this film and enjoy it, great. I just hope that you take a look at the original and see that if this latest version had Asian actors in place of the white actors chosen, it would not have brought down the value of the movie. I trust that American audiences can still get into a film even if the people on screen don’t look like them. Maybe someone out there will decide to take a chance with this source material and make it with Asian actors and see how it plays out.
3 out of 5