Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Death Note (2017) review

    I'm going to admit something: I am both familiar with the manga and anime versions of Death Note as well as not a fan. The premise is certainly fascinating enough but I never really bonded with its central character. Light Yagami jumped off the slippery slope of morality too quickly for me to like him. I also didn't really think L that much as the conflict between them was fascinating but lacked a certain oomph I think which would have propelled the story to greatness. Mind you, I enjoyed the live action movie and I'm also decidedly a minority in my belief the manga/anime were so-so.

I love the scream he gives when he first sees Ryuuk.
    The premise, for those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, is that Light Yagami (Light Turner as played by Nat Wolff in this movie) is an intelligent high school student who is presented by death god, Ryuuk (William Dafoe), with a magical book capable of killing anyone in the world as long as you know their name as well as face. It is a weapon which could be used to kill President Assad, the leader of ISIS, or that guy that really pissed you off in high school. Would you use it to try and make a better world? To make yourself rich? To get revenge? Or would you be horrified at the fact it is a device only capable of helping you get away with murder?

    Light Turner is a different character than Light Yagmai in numerous ways. The original Light was a murderer with a God Complex pretty much from the get go and had no hesitation to murder cops or anyone else who stood in his way. He was also a super genius and you could basically see him as a young Hannibal Lecter. The new Light is a deliberately more ordinary human being both in morality as well as intelligence. He's smart, yes, but not a budding Sherlock Holmes but more like a kid who reads alot. He sees the Death Note as a weapon to kill the worst people in the world and refuses to kill law enforcement or other individuals who might get in his way.

The nerd loves the cheerleader--so he shows him his magic.
    It should be noted the movie has been accused of white washing. I think that's a questionable charge as there's a difference between deliberately scrubbing out minority characters and adapting stories to local cultures. The Magnificent Seven is not racist for not being about the Seven Samurai nor is the Japanese adaptation of Dracula for moving the story to Tokyo. Whitewashing, for me, is when the story removes real life personages of color or changes a story where a character's ethnicity is important to the story. The adaptation of Earthsea changed the protagonist from black to white is racism. The movement of the story from Tokyo to Seattle is not. At least in opinion.

    The story follows Light as he reacts like a typical seventeen-year-old by trying to impress a local girl with the most important thing in his life. Thankfully, Mia (Margaret Qualley) is fascinated by the power which Light wields and the two soon become murderers for justice. This attracts the attention of the world's greatest detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), who soon begins to zero in on Light's location despite the seemingly supernatural nature of his abilities. Simultaneously, Light becomes revered under the pseudonym Kira by the United States' public at large.

L, don't confront the guy with the magic book o' death.
    Overall, I liked this adaptation of Death Note a lot more than I did the original material. I like the idea of the Death Note as a temptation for ordinary people who aren't evil versus following a genius supervillain. It was, indeed, my biggest disappointment with the manga/anime that it was about such a larger-than-life personality. For me, the appeal of the Death Note is that it is an object that allows you to commit the perfect crime. The implications of that is much better and we also get some geo-political hints with the fact Light is very American in his belief he can just intervene in the world to make things better via discriminate executions.

    I also enjoyed the Mia character, who bears almost no similarity to the Misa characterf rom the anime (who is basically Death Note Harley Quinn). Mia has a lot of the qualities of the original Light with the fact she's fascinated by the power of the Death Note as well as excited by the possibilities. Their "Death Note and chill" nights are actually kind of touching in a warped way. I think guys who can remember their crush on girls cooler than them and the fact they'd do just about anything to impress them will sympathize with Light's weird mixture of adorkability as well as godlike disdain.

This won't raise any questions. None whatsoever.
    William Dafoe does an excellent job of portraying Ryuuk and he's the most in-character of the movie's cast, at least compared to the source material. There's a couple of moments where it seems like he's acting out of character but these are just misdirections. He achieves just the right balance of menace, boredom, and sloth to achieve a truly memorable character. I also appreciate how they managed to make him very close to his cartoonish manga appearance without seeming silly.

    The movie does have a few flaws. L is written as reckless and somewhat foolhardy, completely the opposite to his previous personality but also somewhat at odds with events. You could argue he's been smacked by the existence of the supernatural and his friend dying but it's a bit off. There are also a number of small flaws like L assuming Light would kill him despite no evidence he would harm law enforcement officials.

    In conclusion, this is a fun movie and I'm very pleased with it. It's not going to win any Oscars for deep acting but it's a work which is fun, engaging, and has an interesting premise. I suspect people unfamiliar with the manga/anime will like it more. Except, I think people who wouldn't like the original would like this.


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