Death Note (2017 Film) [Review]

Warning:  This review contains some spoilers.

Light Turner, a high school student from Seattle, Washington, comes across a book engraved with the title, “Death Note”.  He soon learns that he can bring death to anyone by writing their name in its pages.

Death Note was adapted from the manga of the same name created by Ohba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi.  It was directed by Adam Wingard, written by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, released on Netflix on August 25th, 2017, and produced by LP Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, and Lin Pictures.

I have been fascinated with this premise for a long time.  I remember seeing Death Note (the dubbed version of the original anime series) appear on Adult Swim (Cartoon Network’s late-night television block) and thinking how interesting it sounded.  The problem was that it was so far departed from my standard cutesy, shonen, slice-of-life, dramedy animes, I couldn’t bring myself to check it out.  So there you have it, folks.  You’re getting a review from someone who has never seen any other version of Death Note!

Let me start off by saying that I actually first heard of Netflix’s attempt at making an anime into a live action film because it was receiving so much backlash.  The dreaded word “whitewashing” kept coming up in every article I read.  To this, I must disagree.  Bear with me.  To begin with, there is a Death Note live action movie already produced by Nippon Television in Japan with a full cast of Japanese actors.  In fact, there were several movies and short-film adaptations of this series in Japan.  We don’t have a case of whitewashing, but a case of story bastardizing to fit American culture.

The problem I have with American film industries taking a Japanese anything and “Americanizing” it is that it always comes across as though Americans are not smart enough to catch on to Japanese culture.  It generally comes down to the story being altered in such a way that it doesn’t make sense and/or butchering the footage to fit the new story.  In this case, though, I think they did a fairly good job at acclimating the story to fit 21st century Seattle without dragging the original content through the mud.  Again, I’ve never seen any other Death Note, so I could be totally off on this.  What I know of the plot of the original, this film conveys the spirit of it.

Back to the film.  Right off the bat, you gather that Light is a fairly intelligent guy who is bullied.  Classic high school scenario.  His way of surviving?  Doing the bully’s homework in exchange for a little cash.  Nat Wolff, who plays Light, was a very good casting call.  He brings a lot of depth and animation to the character and made his story believable.

Side note:  The music throughout this movie was great!  Gave me such a great ’80s vibe, and I’m a sucker for the ’80s.

And to complete the classic high school scenario, you have the bad girl, Mia Sutton, played by Margaret Qualley.  I wanted to punch her several times during this film, so she played her role VERY well.

The story progresses quickly as Light acquires the Death Note as it falls from the sky with a cliché pop-up rainstorm.  Running for cover, Light and Mia run into a peer being bullied.  Mia steps forward first to defend her classmate, with Light stepping in front of her, despite her “not damsel in distress” declaration.  He gets decked of course and is found by faculty with page after page of other classmates’ homework.  Gee, thanks for leaving him blacked out in the rain, Mia.  Light finds himself in detention, despite his pleas for the principal to do something about the bullies.  He flips open the Note and beings reading the many rules inside.

Rule 1 – A human whose name is written in this note shall die.

Thank you for casting Willem Dafoe as Ryuk (REE-YOOK).  I don’t believe you could have picked a more creepy voice for such a creepy character.  Ryuk, from what I gather, is a death god and the Note’s guardian of sorts.  When its previous keeper died, he was tasked in finding another to wield its power.  Oh, did I mention Ryuk loves apples?  I think I’m going to stock up on those from now on.  Wolff does a fantastic job at selling fear in the scene in which he first meets this “eight-foot-tall demon motherf***er”.

Ryuk convinces Light to write the name of the bully that kicked his ass inside the Note and, man, did I get a surprise at just how gory this movie was going to be.  Light decides his fate will be decapitation.  Slice, blood gushing, head rolling, Ryuk evilly chuckling.  FAN-TAS-TIC.

Rule 28 – Each death must be physically possible.

We learn a little bit more about the Note from Ryuk after Light flips through the rules (at least 94 of them) and finds “Don’t trust Ryuk” written in the margins.  Any person written in the Note can have their actions controlled up to 2 days before their death.  It is then that Light decides to make his first cognizant entry in the Note by sentencing the man who murdered his mother to death.

The meat and potatoes of this movie finds Light using his ability as keeper of the Death Note to kill those he believes deserve to die, adopting the persona of a god named “Kira”, which is the Japanese alliteration of the word “killer”, and further means “light” in Celtic.  Light quickly brings Mia into the fold and they bond over murder.  Romantic, no?  A website for Kira believers goes up titled Justice for the Wicked, in which civilians post names and faces of people they believe should die at Kira’s hand.  Light doesn’t think they should trust it because anyone could put up a name for any reason.

Kira soon gains worldwide attention as the Note is filled with names.  Soon the quirky and mysterious L, is hot on Light’s trail.  L is now high on my list of favorite movie characters.  His enigmatic and calculated personality left me wanting more.  Loved the nod to The Wizard of Oz with the obscure Optimistic Voices from the classic 1939 film, as sung by Watari, his faithful assistant.

Watari and L get in contact with Light’s father, James Turner, who is the chief of police in Seattle.  L tells him that he believes Kira is not only in Seattle, but that it’s someone who has access to sensitive information that only those close to the police could have.  L then goes on live television and taunts Kira, begging the god to kill him.  Light is unable to respond since L’s face is covered and he doesn’t know his real name.

In order to not completely spoil the film and the ending, there’s betrayal, a very clever plan, an epic finale, and a hint at a sequel–as there usually is nowadays.  Note that I am not fooled very often when it comes to plot twists and turns; Death Note kept me on my toes throughout.  The critics mauled this movie, giving it a 40% on RottenTomatoes.com, stating it was a disservice to the original story and Asian-Americans.  I, however, enjoyed the hell out of it.

Now, I’m not saying this is the most fantastic movie I’ve ever seen because it’s far from it.  I am saying that it is a great time-waster, an “I’m bored on a Sunday and need something to entertain me for approximately 92 minutes”.  Adam Wingard did a wonderful job directing this film as there were several beautiful shots and setups.  I continuously wanted to know what was going to happen next and how over-the-top the death scene was going to be.  The last 30 minutes alone made the whole movie worth the time.

Acting:  ★★★★☆
Story:  ★★★★☆
Cinematography:  ★★★★☆
Music & Sound:  ★★★★★
Overall:  ★★★★☆

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