Let’s be clear right off the bat – this new North American remake of the classic Shonen Jump manga story was never going to hold up to the brilliant artistry found in the 2006 to 2007 anime series. It was therefore important to recognize this; go in with an open mind about getting a new take on decade old material. The original live-action Death Note films stayed relatively true to their origin story (except for L: Save the World which was a prequel). After years of development hell and limbo, it took Netflix to finally come through granting the necessary green light (funding) to a project by horror genre veteran Adam Wingard (V/H/S, You’re Next).
Keep reading after the trailer
Premiering on August 25th, 2017, subscribers were introduced to the brilliant high school student Light as fate befalls him with the landing of the Death Note; a leather-clad notebook complete with scratches and wear. Light, unable to resist the allure of this book dropping out of thin air, picks it up and begins reading the rules that defy the grounds of reality to give the holder the power to kill anybody they want. The first noticeable difference between the source material and now is the changing of Light’s last name – originally Yagami, this film instead calls him Turner. The character of Light is sacred to many franchise enthusiasts, myself included (Light is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time), so Turner wasn’t going to cut it. Nat Wolff (The Fault in our Stars, Paper Towns) brings our protagonist to life here (or antagonist depending) complete with some signature blonde hair and modest charm but doesn’t seem to capture the same essence seen before. Not to say this is Wolff’s fault, but rather the new screenplay that depicts the character as a force for good without truly letting him slide to the proverbial dark side. Also, his voice is great but it doesn’t amount to Brad Swaile’s smooth intellectual tones that enriched the anime. Light Yagami was special because he ran the fence until power caused him to slide one way more than the other; his intentions pure and humane – taking justice on criminals and seeking to control the world for good while becoming blind to the selfish dictatorship and an increasing thirst for God-like capabilities. Light Turner never runs too far from his vision of salvation for the innocent and that there is ground rules he must respect. A major plot device that could explain the variation is that in the new film, Light has lost his Mother to a victim of crime and has no sister at all, where the animated original has a complete family unit so there has not been that sadness implanted into him.
Enough about Light for a moment, because the hero is only as good as the villain and, in this case, the villain is only as good as the hero which is “L” – older than Light by not even a decade, he is a genius at piecing together clues and therefore has taken claim as one of the world’s brightest detectives. Portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield (Straight out of Compton, The Purge: Anarchy), he does a tremendous job at retaining the character traits of his anime predecessor including the character’s fidget type behavior, slouching, and eating candy (a slight change from cake). Stanfield’s voice even resembles the North American voice actor Alessandro Juliani’s “L” from the animated series.
Backlash for Death Note
On a side note: this Death Note received a bit of a backlash during production as it was considered to have whitewashed the original. Bullshit. To get up-in-arms about something like changing the Asian source to North American is nothing new, it’s part of adapting and bringing the formula to what works in the target market. The fact that “L” is black speaks subtle volumes in that the character is so important, and the role, that it didn’t matter and shouldn’t matter whether he was Asian, African-American, Chinese, Mexican, Russian or Caucasian – it does not matter. The story is the focus here and credit for Wingard and his screenplay team here for changing “L” up from full-blown hero to incorporating not just the original’s traits, but also those of latter anime series characters Near and Mello who were “L’s” successors against Light.
The supporting cast were also effective in translating the characters over; especially the character of Watari (Paul Nakauchi, Star Wars: The Clone Wars) whom got a climactic, integral part to the new storyline that I found presented the most ambitious detour in where we thought the story was heading, and giving us a side-story of sorts where the outcome was going to heavily weigh on both Light and “L”. But the absolute best casting choice was of Ryuk; the Shinigami death God who owns the Death Note and tries to guide Light (within reason but not without his own devious intentions). Shot live-action in prosthetics by one actor, while motion-captured with the other, Ryuk is one of the scariest characters around; a tremendous addition to the horror genre. This new version especially because he appears more withered, and this creates a sense of menace when he looks at one character or event. However it is Ryuk’s voice that is a key component. The voice work here falls to the legendary Willem Dafoe (Spider-man, Wild at Heart). The eerie cackle of amusement and pleasure mixed with the sinister sincerity that Ryuk often displays could only fall to Dafoe so hats off on that one. The visual effects compliment the character as well, with the shadowy tones and dark blue to black hues escalating the viewer’s sense of danger whenever the character is lurking.
Lastly, another Death Note series favorite is the character of Misa Amane; a sociopathic on-and-off girlfriend to Light who eventually wields a Death Note of her own. However, in keeping with the 2 hour running time, Misa was condensed to sharing the Death Note with Light relatively quickly. While this idea was horrendous a thought at first (because Light would not be so stupid as to share this secret so soon), it became clear later on the positive advantage of having the characters bond so quickly especially as “L” drew closer in his investigation and her more ruthless and erratic behavior. Did I say Misa? Ah right, yes, well she isn’t Misa here, but rather Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley, The Leftovers). Again – whatever! Not the end of the world.
At the end of the day, the plot didn’t stall, it changed things up, and working within the time frame, managed to give us enough depth for these new character to emerge. Most important, just as the original series kept us entwined with twists and turns, the 2017 Death Note has a few unexpected twists of its own which, I am pleased to say, brought about respecting the fundamentals of Light Turner (and to a degree Light Yagami) to bring this tale to a pleasant, not-so-definitive, conclusion. Bonus – watch for a brief cameo by Masi Oka, star of the Heroes television series and one of the Producers on this project.
Whether you are a fan or not of the original series, still check it out. I am not saying you will love it, and you might groan on occasion, but there is also enough to satiate a horror thriller fanboy’s love for murder and mayhem with a bit of mystery. I am thankful that Death Note itself lives on and for that, no version will rob the richness of the original series, but can only bring a new audience into its pages…the pages of the Death Note.