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Death Note (2017) Review

Adaptation of Japanese manga about a demon who deals in death.

Death Note is a 2017 horror fantasy about a bright student who stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it.

If you don’t know what Death Note is or where it comes from, maybe, perhaps, there might be something about this latest adaptation now streaming on Netflix that will work. Horror guru Adam Wingard makes some significant changes to the famed source material, which began as a Japanese manga, and delivers a pretty straight-forward young adult’s dark fairy tale that has a surreal kind of style even as it can’t quite live up to its own promise.

RELATED: Asian Cinema Film Club Podcast reviews Death Note (2006)

High schooler Light Turner (Nat Wolff) sits quietly by the school’s athletic field as the footballers and cheerleaders run drills when a sudden wind and rain chase everyone away and a leather bound book falls from the sky at his feet. The title is Death Note and inside he sees pages of rules but basically, he learns that if one is to write a name in the book, that person dies. A demon-ish looking Death God named Ryuk (motion captured and voiced by Willem Dafoe and performed by Jason Liles) shows up to teach him the ropes and sure enough, Light’s first victim is a bully at school. Not long after, classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), a pretty brunette, attracts his attention and he brings her into the fold, showing off the book and soon enough, the two invent an alter ego named Kira who exacts vengeance on criminals around the world, though of course, there are consequences.

Death Note clicks along with little background, with Light accepting his fate fast, right along with Mia, the film more interested in getting on with the job of doling out death than earning any real investment out of anyone. We get introduced to Kira’s nemesis, a mysterious master detective named ‘L’ (Lakeith Stanfield), who deduces that Kira is somewhere in Seattle and eventually comes to work with Light’s father James (Shea Whigham), a diligent cop who has some ideas of his own. It all comes down to a deadly game of cat and mouse of course though the film keeps all its cards facing forward so there’s little mystery to it all.

That said, there’s a lot that’s good about Death Note, including the pace and style. Wingard understands his audience and apparently made changes to give this broader appeal and certainly many will agree. Mia is most likely a take on Misa, a character in the manga, but it’s a significant alteration, but either way, Wingard and writers Charley & Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater are taking us in a different direction, going full whitewash, dropping the whole story in Seattle. That’s going to miff a lot of fans right there, however this is only the start of a few setbacks.

Death Note
Death Note, 2017 © Lin Pictures

While it has some pulpy gore here and there, it never really dips as dark or surreal as it feels like it should. It starts with some humor at the onset but quickly abandons that, putting its efforts in a more straightforward drama, with conflicts mounting but never too heavy. It embraces an 80s sensibility with its score and music choices, but what doesn’t these days? Most disappointing though is Ryuk himself, a dull demon that is never used to his capacity. Dafoe is well cast, but like his masked Green Goblin from Spider-Man (2002) is underused and his naturally expressive face left to the deep shadows. Stanfield and Whigham come off best however, truly delivering some grounded and compelling performances.

RELATED: 5 Mostly Forgotten Roles of Willem Dafoe

Death Note is a flawed film to be sure, somehow not quite connecting like it should, made a little hollow by its lack of innovation, though there is plenty of momentum by the final act. Whether a fan or familiar with its origins or not, there’s a decent night at the movies here, with young adults surely getting the most mileage, however it doesn’t have the legs for any distance.

Death Note (2017) Review

Movie description: Death Note is a 2017 horror fantasy about a bright student who stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it.

Director(s): Adam Wingard

Actor(s): Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley

Genre: Fantasy

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