The Netflix original American Death Note is finally upon us. It took a lot of flak for, among other things, whitewashing, having a black man play L and generally looking shite (depending on your viewpoint), but personally I was rather looking forward to it. I enjoyed the anime but I’m not a diehard fan of it by any means, having the cast be white Americans didn’t bother me (if you want an all-Asian version that exists already) and I took quite a shine to the new L, despite his potentially weak disguise game. I wasn’t expecting it to be a masterpiece, but as long as it was decent I’d probably enjoy it. Unfortunately that was too much to ask.
After a magic book capable of killing anyone whose name is written in falls from the sky, Light Turner becomes a vigilante serial killer at the goading of Death God Ryuk. Along the way he gains the help of fellow student and girlfriend Mia Sutton, and after the killings become numerous and international he falls under the deductive eye of mysterious private detective L, who vows to catch him. First of all, Light and Mia are awful, both as adapted versions of existing characters and as character in themselves. Anime Light was a boy of sheer focus, immense intelligence and an alarming messiah complex. He killed everyone with a heart attack to instil fear and bring about a world in which he is seen as a God. This Light is a whiny dweeb who gets a few lines early on about how people don’t look out for the little guy, which is apparently all the motivation he needs to slaughter people. The heart attacks are gone, seemingly just so that the film can cram in unnecessary gore with which it swiftly grows bored. Here the moniker “Kira” is a name chosen by him to appear Japanese, and apparently means “Light” in Russian and Celtic. I am glad they put in an explanation for it, but it still seems a bit flimsy, and once it’s explained it’s never questioned again, and it’s never really mentioned why exactly Light wants people to think he’s Japanese, specifically. Mia’s loveable ditz routine from the anime has been discarded, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; this Mia has notable moments of real competence fuelled by a chilling desire to kill that outshines Light, but these moments are few and far between, and for the most part she’s just Light’s girlfriend. The love story is depressingly inevitable, begins within five minutes of them meeting and fails so thoroughly in its attempts to make you care about it that it adds literally nothing of value to the plot. Ryuk fares better, though it’s mainly down to Willem Defoe, who basically plays himself and does exactly as good a job as his casting would imply. Several times he’s shown out of focus, with only his glowing eyes giving him away; this combined with the film’s insistence on keeping everything regarding the Shinigami vague and unspoken make him quite effective.
L, on the other hand, is thoroughly battered. It starts reasonably well; Lakeith Stanfield gets the posture and mannerisms down, and has a slightly different take on the character, making him somewhat more self-assured in public, but barely restraining a flood of emotions that threaten to boil over more than once, and occasionally do. He doesn’t have the sheer length of time to show off his acumen afforded to his anime counterpart, but he puts things together, challenges Kira in a believable, understandable way, and maintains the disguise shown in he picture above. He is, for the duration of these scenes, L. Unfortunately the film apparently needed an exciting action climax, catalysed by a sharp departure from the source material involving a rule in the book being bent if not outright broken by the film and never commented upon. It results in L CHASING LIGHT THROUGH THE STREETS, ARMED WITH A BLADE RUNNER GUN. Said chase goes on way too long, as L pursues Light through alleys, diners and apartment buildings, in a scene I still can’t quite believe actually happened. He does all this with his face uncovered, too, and unsurprisingly this has consequences. I know L has quirks, and can do things a lot of people would consider irrational or strange, but the film has other scenes that convey this far more effectively, and without having the character do something so stupid and detrimental to his career. I can understand why it happens, and it’s not completely unthinkable given the series of events leading up to it, but as I said, those events are at odds with the rules in the Death Note, and to have L act so much like his anime counterpart in the scenes leading up to the chase make it jarring at best and detrimental at worst. It’s a shame, because alongside Defoe, Stanfield is the best part of the film, and he does his best with the lacking material.
Overall Netflix’s attempt at a Death Note adaptation is pretty awful. Light and Mia are annoying, bland, and neither likeable, nor truly hate-able as villains. It’s the bare bones of Death Note with gore, a love story and needlessly over-the-top action draped over. Despite what they have to work with, Lakeith Stanfield and Willem Defoe make the most of things, but they are all that the film has going for it. If you’re a fan of the source material, it’s worth a watch as a curiosity, and to see Stanfield and Defoe. If you’re new to Death Note, there’s nothing here for you.
By James Lambert