Before we go any further, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. I hate the whitewashing, “Americanized version” excuse or not, it’s bullshit. Normally I’d give this movie the finger and keep on pushing, but it’s Tsugumi Ohba’s classic Death Note, so I had to see what they did with a beloved classic. How bad could it be? I wasn’t ready for the answer.
The general setup is still the same: young genius, Light Yagami Turner (Nat Wolff) is minding his own business, lamenting how the evil people always win, only to have the Death Note dropped before him in Tokyo, Japan Seattle, Washington. Armed with a book that can kill anyone whose name is written in it, he and the book’s owner, Death God Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), set out to remake the world under his moral system while embroiled in a cat and mouse game with L, the world class detective. However, getting that far, this movie can’t help but trip on its own shoelaces. Where the original Light kept the secret of the book sacred, and had figured its secrets out on his own through hard work and due diligence before even meeting Ryuk, Light-T is a brat, who we’re told is smart repeatedly but pulls some of the most boneheaded mistakes, has to be nudged into action with instruction.
Later, while sitting in the stands at cheerleader Misa Misa Mia’s (Margaret Qualley) practice, Light decides to crack open his secret book in public. Of course, this draws her curiosity and he can’t wait to tell her about his newfound power. You see, along with being uncharacteristically cavalier with his secret, L-T doesn’t think twice about choosing booty over duty. Mia, on the other hand, gets to keep her counterpart’s bloodthirstiness , which becomes an issue between the two when L begins to close in.
Death Note moves in the general direction it’s supposed to, but it takes the worst ways to get there. It relies on the audience already knowing the original, yet it also wants us to accept those same core details are going to be thrown out the window at random. The movie feels like someone was vaguely familiar with the anime, dosed in and out of a binge session, and then shoehorned another script in the gaps. For a show that hinges on strict rules, a movie that doesn’t respect its own rules is unforgivable.
Case and point: Ryuk remarks that people have only been able to write two letters of his name in the Death Note before dying, but we clearly see his name as part of a message. Light-T even asks about it! It’s brushed aside by Ryuk a few seconds later and we’re supposed to forget as easily as L-T. Nope! Even more puzzling, the Death Note now has over 95 rules, including one stating that not possessing the book for a week ends ownership. We spend a decent amount of time on this rule only for it to mean nothing. Well, other than it destroys a good amount of the source material and some of Light-Prime’s best moments.
Ultimately, the writing dooms anything this movie could have been. I can’t even give them a gold star for effort since they rarely hit on anything. By the time the big reveal at the end comes along, it goes over with all the gravitas of a fart in church. All the Final Destination-esque deaths and gore can’t cover Death Note‘s warts. It’s a shame considering the cast held up its end. Nat Wolff plays a decent Light, given what he had to work with, but it seemed he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a young, unhinged Nicolas Cage, or an entitled brat. Either way, I found myself openly rooting against ole L-T. Margaret Qualley never seemed comfortable with Mia, yet there wasn’t much to grab onto from there. Misa Misa wasn’t the greatest character but at least she was given some depth. Lakeith Stanfield’s L is a breath of fresh air for a while, until L is pulled down into bad writing.
A character, defined by his intelligence and calm demeanor, running down the street in a murderous rage with a laser targeting hand gun doesn’t quite work. Battling a lackluster Light Ryuk is even positioned as the main villain, regardless of how much the original story actually worked around his and Light’s friendship. Instead, Ryuk can’t wait to be rid of Light. As far as his look, Death Note manages to simultaneously improve and fall short of the original live action movies. With more detail and realism to his skin, Ryuk is only hampered by the fact this tall, almost emaciated character is transformed into a reject of one of Hellraiser‘s Pinhead minion. This is all making my head hurt again.
Nothing in this movie really makes sense. It boasts of being a cat and mouse game but the mouse snitches on himself in the first meeting. Our hero is supposed to be a great manipulator, but the dialogue and acting of his scenes with his dad would make the tween shows on Disney Channel blush. Hell, our fearless hero tries to quit when the going gets rough only to be punked into the third act of the movie. It’s a shit brick, like Ghost in the Shell before it. Save yourself the wasted time, avoid it like the plague, and track down the live action 2016 show instead. Subtitles won’t kill you.