The Japanese manga gets another live-action treatment, this time courtesy of You’re Next helmer Adam Wingard.
Light Turner is a teenager who is somewhat of an outcast, but is intelligent where students pay him to do their work for them. After an attempt to protect cheerleader Mia from resident bully Kenny, Light finds a book called “Death Note”. Reading the book, at first he brushes it off. That is until during detention, he meets Ryuk, a “Shinigami” who tells Light the rules of Death Note. When Light sees Kenny bully another student, he writes Kenny’s name in the book and the method of decapitation. Kenny is killed in front of many onlookers.
Light soon decides to use the book to avenge the death of his mother, who was killed by a top mobster. Soon realizing he has the power to kill criminals simply by writing their name and their method to die, Light decides to take full advantage of this. Eventually forming a relationship with Mia, the two use the Death Note to kill many criminals and use the nickname “Kira” as their moniker. However, a mysterious detective named L has burst on to the scene after an incident in Tokyo leaves twelve clubgoers dead. L teams up with Light’s father, a detective assigned to the Kira case, to find out who Kira is and how they can be stopped.
Based on the popular manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the story of a young man who possesses a book that allows him to kill anyone with a name and face, thus using it to his advantage to kill all criminals, has gained quite a following. Following an anime adaptation, a quadrology of live-action films were made in Japan over the course of a decade. Now comes this Hollywood adaptation of the manga, which actually holds its own in the world of its title.
The screenplay, written by Jeremy Slater, Charles Parlapanides, and Vlas Parlapanides, actually takes the most faithful pieces of the original story and twists it quite a bit, bringing a grounded sense of teen angst. The film’s driving forces are Nat Wolff and Lakeith Stanfield, who play the young Light and detective L respectively. While the L in the original manga has a bit of oddity in both looks and mannerisms, Stanfield’s take on the character brings the mannerism, but holds a look that at times can be very intimidating in today’s society.
As for Wolff, the former child star churns out a performance of Light first as an outcast, then as a “hero” of sorts, to one who slowly questions if what he is doing is right. Yet, there are times when Wolff tries a little too hard and it is clear he is no Tatsuya Fujiwara, who personified Light in the original Japanese live-action films. But the scream when he first sees Ryuk in this one is quite laughable to almost a Wayans Brother-level.
Margaret Qualley is decent as Mia, Light’s love interest who joins him on his newfound mission and gets enthralled in it to the point where even Light has to question her, especially when he flat out refuses to kill his own father when he goes on the news to challenge “Kira”. Using motion-capture technology, Jason Liles brings Ryuk to life with the voice of the great Willem Dafoe, who truly shines when it comes to voiceover work. The only issue is that there isn’t enough between Ryuk and Light, which is a very vital part of the original story. It instead focuses more on Light’s relationships with Mia and his father and his questioning of his actions.
The death scenes start out pretty brutal and gory but then slowly gets tamer and tamer. Yes, there is plenty of bloodshed in the film that leads to L getting involved after the Tokyo club massacre. This is where we see a cameo by producer Masi Oka, who is best known for his role on the hit series Heroes. Paul Nakauchi plays L’s handler Watari, as a way to perhaps keep that diversity going in the film.
Overall, where there are plenty of flaws that faithful fans of the manga and anime that will have them screaming, the Hollywood adaptation of Death Note brings a bit of grounded reality rather than completely make a total remake. It’s not completely bad, but it’s not completely great either. Truly a middle of the road, most likely a one-time watch.
WFG RATING: C-
A Netflix Original Movie in association with LP Entertainment and Vertigo Entertainment. Director: Adam Wingard. Producers: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Masi Oka, Jason Hoffs, and Ted Sarondos. Writers: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater; based on the Weekly Shonen Jump manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Cinematography: David Tattersall. Editing: Louis Cioffi.
Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe (voice), Masi Oka.