Adam Wingard and company struggle to bring to light the epic manga/anime to North American audiences in this dull and uninspired American remake.
Based on the popular manga series from Tsugumi Ohba, and later a hit anime series in 2006, Death Note is one of those properties that worried fans of the source material the moment it was announced as an American remake (the original live action came out in Japan in 2006).
The anime and manga followed a brilliant teenager, Light Yagami whose future was bright and full of endless potential. Everything changed after he finds a mysterious notebook coined the ‘Death Note’, which he discovers has the power to kill anyone as long as their name is written inside with their face visualized as its being written. There are many rules to the Death Note, like writing their cause of death otherwise they just die as a heart attack or the death cause has to be possible, otherwise they too will die of a heart attack (a dinosaur couldn’t pop out of the television and bite someone’s head off, for example).
Death Note is a brilliant story, and with the 20+ episodes dedicated to the anime and 12 volumes of manga, I can see how cramming all of that into a two hour film can be a challenge. So challenging in fact, that the writers and the director, Adam Wingard, saw fit to throw the source material to the curb and take creative liberties into their own hands. The thing that bugs me most about that, as I use the term “creative” loosely here, is that from start to finish, Death Note feels lazy, contrived, and painfully uninspired.
Every single thing that made Death Note’s story so fascinating and captivating throughout every page of the manga, and every episode of the anime has been removed. Except for Ryuk, who is played perfectly by Willem Dafoe, despite his minimal screen time.
From the moment that the Death Note falls out of the sky beside Light in the bleachers at a high school cheerleading practice, to the introduction of Ryuk, to the first on-screen death executed by the book, I could not help but feel like I was watching a friend’s YouTube fan film. Despite being worth a million views, and hundreds of thousands of dislikes, it’s hard to believe that this is the level of quality of film we get in 2017 from Netflix, the juggernaut of delivering original content and streaming power house.
Nat Wolff (the kid from The Naked Brothers Band) plays a reimagined Light Yagami, now Light Turner, an awkward high school teenager with a troubled home life and practically no social life. Instead of the brilliantly meticulous and calculating sociopath Light eventually comes under the pseudonym ‘Kira’, we get a boring protagonist who just wants to believe he is doing the right thing with the hopes of impressing a girl. In the manga (and anime), Light’s motives could not be further from romance but hey, creative liberties I guess.
When Light finally meets Ryuk, he does what any normal person would do- he freaks the f*ck out and screams wildly until he believes the 8ft tall demon is gone. When he realizes he isn’t dreaming and that Ryuk is still there, Ryuk persuades Light to give the Death Note a test run on the school bully (who knocked Light out earlier in the film), which in and of itself is a prime example of just how wrong the writers got Light as a character. Light is not a wimpy coward, and he certainly isn’t a socially awkward introverted trouble-maker (Light was in detention for cheating when he first met Ryuk). Light is meant to be a genius, prodigy, and skilled at every thing he does but again, creative liberties, or some bullsh*t.
The Light I know is practically a celebrity among his classmates. He is popular with the ladies, he never gets in trouble for anything, is great at sports, and has a strong sense of right and wrong, black and white, justice and punishment. This is not that Light.
Once Light realizes what the Death Note can do, a quick montage of Kira’s popularity is shown through candlelight vigils, news broadcast, and front page media coverage. Light becomes “Kira”, which is Russian for “light” but Japanese for “killer”, to which Light Turner takes great pride in this moment of cleverness, all the while attracting the attention of “L” (played awkwardly by Lakeith Stanfield), a guy dressed in a ninja costume who hobbles around crime scene to crime scene analyzing and assessing the Kira threat while stuffing his face with various candies and sweets.
L, now an American Ninja Warrior, apparently.
The cat and mouse relationship between L and Light is practically non-existent, which ruined the large majority of their dynamic. L suspects Light almost immediately, and there is no task force to support L leading us to believe that he just took a wild guess and landed correctly on Light Turner. The character development is also absent, making it really difficult to care about any single character and their actions. Add that to Light’s carelessness and ill-planning, along with his romantic baggage and poor motivations, with L being entirely forgettable, boring, and so under-developed, you would never even assume the Netflix version could have ever possibly been based on anyone or anything from the source material, and you get this mess of a film.
The writing team, consisting of the incredible Jeremy Slater, the guy who brought you such treasures as FANT4STIC, really just pulled out a handful of cliche plot devices out of a hat and put them down on paper just to lengthen the script to 100 painful, dreary minutes. Sloppy, choppy, rushed, and tasteless, and an ending that seemed last minute and forced, Death Note just stumbles with every step it takes.
Aside from Ryuk, there is nothing else I liked, and I really tried. But the cinematography looked amateur, copied from countless movies before it, with nearly no suspense, and nothing to make this film stand out. If we remove my passion of interest towards the manga and anime, taking that out completely, you get a film that is barely meh, and so amateur, it’s hard to believe it had a $40 million budget. Seriously, I honestly have no idea where that money went but perhaps it would’ve been wise to spend it on some acting classes and a writer who wasn’t behind this:
I actually liked this, this more than Netflix’s Death Note. Yeah, I know.
Director Adam Wingard has demonstrated potential with some of his past work, but this film definitely doesn’t show it. Deprived of everything that made the source material interesting, and replaced with every cliche plot device that ruins films, let alone films based on anime, Death Note fails on practically every level. Ryuk looks good, and is voiced particularly well by Dafoe, but his presence in the film amounts to no more than five minutes tops, and that alone isn’t enough to save Death Note from being a total snooze fest. With very little going for it, to the point that I would say fans would literally suffer through and non-fans would walk way saying “huh, so that was a film”, you may just be better off staying away from this American remake. It isn’t good, at all, and I almost feel personally insulted that this version of the film is the final product. But ya know, creative freedom, or some such bullsh*t.