Aug-30-2017

Reel Snippet – Death Note

Summary: Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an ordinary high school student who’s fed up with criminals and miscreants going unpunished. Lucky for him, he comes across a notebook from a Death God named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it. With his new girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) at his side, he begins writing criminals’ names en masse, gaining fame and notoriety under the name Kira. But not everyone is a fan of Kira’s vengeful justice, particularly a secretive investigator that goes by L (Lakeith Stanfield). L uses every resource he can to hunt Kira down while Light wrestles with himself, Mia, and Ryuk on how far to take Kira’s crusade.

Review: Death Note is the latest attempt at an American adaptation of a classic anime… and sadly another dud in that lineup. Based on the popular anime and manga series, this movie takes one of the cleverest and most dynamic characters in anime history and makes him a dumb teenager prone to stoner comedy-esque screaming fits and ruled by his easily manipulated libido. That last bit is especially baffling because Light and Mia have all the sizzling chemistry of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, a bar so low that one could only fail to clear it if they’d tied their shoelaces together. None of this is helped by the absolutely baffling soundtrack which puts 80s glam rock over what are supposed to be dramatic scenes. Apparently, “tone” and “consistency” were both written in the Death Note.

Light’s transformation from sociopathic chess master to angsty teen especially highlights how much the filmmakers don’t get the source material. They try to give him a murdered mom backstory to justify his actions and consistently cold feet to make us empathize with him and you just can’t do that to a character who murders hundreds of people with the ultimate tool of detachment. Part of what made the original Light so compelling was the fact that he completely bought into his own godhood on this crusade. He’s akin to Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or Rick Sanchez in that he’s not meant to be relatable, but to inspire awe in those who watch him. Giving him a conscience is akin to bringing Batman’s parents back to life — it makes the entire thing fall apart.

Here’s another thing that really killed the movie for me: everyone was just so DUMB. It’s insulting enough for Light not to be a chess master, but L is another matter altogether. Case in point, he’s deduced that Kira needs a name and/or a face to kill someone (he hides his face in public), so he goes to confront Light, who he believes to be Kira… and then reveals his face to him. Um, hello? You just did half his job for him! Sadly, this is not the last of their boneheaded moves in their game where L plays chess, Light plays checkers, and Ryuk plays some other unearthly game.

Speaking of Ryuk, he’s easily the best part of the movie, much of that coming down to Willem Dafoe’s creepy portrayal. L is also one of the stronger characters, Stanfield capturing the awkward genius and his trademark slouch. Apart from that, there’s not a lot I can recommend about this movie. If you’re a newcomer, you’d probably wonder why you’re supposed to root for an emo mass murderer and if you’re a fan of the anime, you’ll likely be put off by the huge liberties taken with the story and characters. American anime adaptations at this point have a worse track record than video game movies. Unless we get some people who really get how to translate the intricacies of a series into an hour and thirty minute film, we should just leave this alone because this movie missed the point about as much as The Last Airbender. At the very least, though, it’s much better put together… but that’s still a pretty low bar.

Fun Tidbit: One of the producers, Masi Oka, cameos as a Japanese police officer at a crime scene where two Japanese crime families have slaughtered each other, courtesy of Kira. Oka remarks that the Nakamuras and the Inagawas have had a truce for years, making this mass killing nonsensical. This in itself is a reference to Oka’s own character on the superpowered drama Heroes named Hiro Nakamura.


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