FILM REVIEW: Japanese Manga Series Gets Hollywood Treatment in DEATH NOTE
Fans of the Japanese comic series Death Note will rejoice that Netflix is finally bringing them an English adaptation of the teen-revenge fantasy product this weekend. The film is a comfortable and recognizable product for American audiences, with a dash of The Faculty-like horror and a touch of all those high school movies from The Breakfast Club to Superbad and beyond. Fans may be disappointed, however, that the film never reaches the dark heights of the manga series, while the casual observer may not fail to notice the at times problematic script that surrounds the movie.
The story revolves around Light, a confused teenager played by Nat Wolff, as his bullied and misunderstood fortunes end when uncovers a medieval-looking book and its accompanying demon, which has mysterious and deadly powers. The demon, voiced by William Dafoe doing his best as a worst villain (and apparently all the rage at Netflix these days), explains to Light that by simply writing down the name of a person and visualizing their face, he can cause their death. And there is more: he can conveniently control an individual for up to 48 hours, like remote puppeteering, before their ultimate demise. Light can, as a cherry on top, also pick the method of death.
Although Light uses this demonic power to first exact revenge on two mostly crappy people, who bite it Final Destination-style, he soon becomes determined to use the weapon for what he believes to be good: ridding the world of murderers, drug lords, dictators, and child molesters, one remote blood-filled explosion at a time. There are other rules baked into the plot—I mean, the death note—which reveal themselves slowly if somewhat conveniently as the story necessitates.
Eventually things get complicated. His father, James, a local police detective in Seattle, quickly gets on the trail of the mysterious killer the world comes to know as “Kira,” a Japanese variation on “killer.” The hot chick in town, Mia (a devilish Margaret Qualley), seduces Light and encourages him to commit more violent and morally dubious acts. And a brilliant detective known only as “L” (Keith Stanfield) soon joins the hunt party.
Although the premise of Death Note lends itself to obvious but nevertheless intriguing philosophical and ethical questions such as whether vigilante punishment, and the death penalty at that, are proper forms of ridding the streets of crime, or whether a God-like individual should be empowered to mete out this justice, the film shows little to no interest in seriously tackling these issues. Instead, Death Note revolves mostly around the cat-and-mouse game that the mega-intelligent L and the super confused but dangerous Kira play.
In that sense, Death Note becomes interesting in its own right. It does not, of course, have to explore moral themes to be a good picture, and the mission it clearly sets up—to confuse you into rooting both for Kira and L without being able to determine who the good guys always are—achieves that result indirectly and more quietly.
But the film does stumble at times against its own tentativeness. Light’s father seems at times like a cartoonish cop out of Veronica Mars, and not the serious, troubled figured he’s supposed to be. Wolff himself (who is also in theaters this weekend with the movie Leap!) overacts at times, perhaps following the leads of his young adult costars, all of whom seem to be wanting to jump off the page like the victims in Kira’s notebook. It is only Dafoe, expectedly, who knows when to turn it up and when to turn it out, and even the impish demon he plays works well thanks to his talents.
As the plot begins to twist around itself and the walls close in on Light and Mia thanks to L’s tightening grip, Death Note oscillates dangerously between brilliance and completely falling off the rails. Each of the characters make questionable choices, not just teenage-level bad, but real bad guy level bad. The paths narrow such that one outcome becomes painfully clear and, while you will not see exactly how they get there, it will be telegraphed as sure as Light’s notebook foretells expiration. The ultimate resolution, clearly meant to set up a sequel, seems more like a copout than brave confrontation of the high stakes that the game has set up.
Despite all this, it would be impossible not to be gripped by the intrinsically interesting story at the heart of Death Note. The characters, even if not always played with thespian brilliance, are inherently intriguing and complicated. The conundrums are real, and the different games thrilling enough to keep you guessing and enthused.
I expect fans of the original series will find more to like than not with this adequate adaptation of the story, even while non-adherents may see one too many holes in the spiral binding of the notebook. But both camps will not be able to look away as the next name—really, the next act—is written into the yellowed out little pages.
Death Note will be released by Netflix this Friday.
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