Death Note Review: A Film Worth Noting

The upcoming Death Note film is one that’s been plagued with doubt and ridicule from day one. Anime and manga fans aren’t exactly known for keeping their feelings secret, and with the continual declarations of whitewashing overseas properties the casting of Nat Wolff as Light certainly didn’t help a whole lot. But would this be a film that would crash and burn like other similar manga adaptations like Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball Evolution?

LRM had a chance to attend a special screening at last month’s San Diego Comic-Con, and we’re happy to report that no, we do not believe this one will suffer a similar fate. While fans of the manga will likely still poke and prod this adaptation due to its relative unfaithfulness to the manga (it uses the premise as a jumping off point, rather than sticking to each core plot point), I thought it was a great adaptation — one that has the ability to stand pretty well on its own.

For those unfamiliar, Netflix’s latest follows high schooler Light Turner, a boy who finds a mysterious notebook in the opening minutes of the flick. When visited by the death god Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), he learns that the notebook has the ability to kill. All he needs to do is write their name, and have the person’s face in his mind when he writes it, and he can control their very lives. Light (Nat Wolff), a kid who has seen great injustice in the world around him, takes this opportunity to be karma itself to those who bring a blemish to mankind. Though while his intentions may be altruistic, the eyes of the law don’t necessarily see that way, and the secret detective known as L (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who is dead set on finding out who’s behind the killings.

This is a film that had a lot of potential pitfalls. The manga is known for its numerous, convoluted twists and turns, and in a medium like TV and manga, that’s fine. However, with a film, you need to find a way to get that same feeling without having to adhere to every single plot line. The way they did that here was to pretty much throw the overall plot out the window. The premise is the same, and the style and feel is similar to the manga, but if you’re hoping for a beat-by-beat adaptation, that never would have worked, and director Adam Wingard knew it. Instead, they have a very accessible and rewarding take that captures the main aspects that make the manga special, all while injecting its own darker personality into the premise.

Admittedly, about two-thirds through the film, I had missed the high levels of game and mouse that went on between Light and L in the manga. Given the constraints of the medium, they could never have reached the same heights, but they do the best they can in a couple hours, and by the closing credits, they done enough to satisfy my thirst for their back-and-forth.

The visuals of the movie are another highlight. It’s a damn pretty flick. The shots are stylized and effective, and the added violence to the film is captured so lovingly (seriously, that first kill…dayum). It’s also a look that very much fits the darker tone that Wingard brings to the story. Ryuk is a joy to behold. If you’re like me and watched the original Japanese live-action flicks, you likely disliked the way they interpreted Ryuk there — as he looked like a CG cartoon in a live-action world. Here, they manage to give him a bit more grounding in terms of his look, all while staying faithful to the manga character’s aesthetic. Sure, sometimes it’s a bit too CG for my taste, but he was still fun to look at.

For the most part, the cast did a great job. Lakeith Stanfield played a mostly picture perfect L. All of those mannerisms you loved from the manga and anime are retained, despite how the trailer makes it look. What’s more, he manages to retain those aspects, all while feeling like a real person, which was surprising. Willem Dafoe is great is Ryuk. As we know, there was literally no one better to cast in that role, and he doesn’t disappoint. Margaret Qualley plays Mia Sutton, a new take on Misa Amane, and given how terrible Misa was as a character, Qualley’s Mia is a HUGE improvement. While Misa was brainless and fawning, Mia actually has legitimate drive an motivation that moves the plot forward and pushes Light in new directions. Qualley captures that extra crazy aspect very well. If there was one weak link, it may be Wolff as Light. He’s not bad by any means, but there were a few lines he delivered that felt a bit hammy and phony. That being said, it was by no means a dealbreaker. It was serviceable.

All in all, this was a film that could have been a mammoth train wreck. A film that only uses the source material as a jumping off point? You could have easily had a director who tried to hard to split the difference between what happened in the manga and what he wanted to happen. This film exuded confidence, and went boldly in its new direction, which ultimately made for a much more enjoyable watch. If you’re in the mood for a fun new take on the source material, you’ll likely be in for an enjoyable ride. If you just want the manga transliterated to screen, you were never going to like this flick anyways.

Death Note may not win any awards, but it’s a fun, stylized genre flick that makes for one hell of an entertaining thrill ride.

Grade: B

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