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A review of "Death Note" (2017)

It seems one of the first things anybody want to talk about regarding the Netflix-backed reboot/remake/adaptation of Death Note is how gross the white-washing is, so let's get that out of the way now.  I can't help but feel it's a minor point.  Sure, it would be nice if the producers were conscientious enough to cast some Asian-American actors, but it's not like the plot or characters rely on racial or ethnic subtleties to get the point across.  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is The Last Airbender and 5 is Shall We Dance, I think I'd rank the misguided casting as maybe a 4.  There's bigger fish to fry, is what I'm saying.

(Related side note: I have no idea what a 1 on that scale would be.  If anybody knows of any English-language remakes or adaptations whose casting did justice to their source, please let me know in the comments.)

The story, for those not in the know, involves Light Turner (originally Light Yagami), a moody and authoritarian-minded teenager, coming into possession of the titular Death Note.  It's a creepy magical notebook that grants its owner the godly power of doling out death to anybody in the world.  All you need to do is write down the name of the person you want dead and visualize their face.  For added fun, you can specify details about their death, as elaborate as you'd like.  There's also a bunch of miscellaneous rules that go along with it, and as kind of an aside, Light is haunted by Ryuk, a creepy death god who keeps egging him on to kill as many people as possible.

Light creates an alter ego for himself named "Kira" in order to fill potential criminals with fear of his powers and uses the Death Note to kill murderers, pedophiles, and other undesirables in order to fulfill his vision of a perfect world.  Soon there is a global following of Kira supporters who praise the divine wrath that is being enacted upon society, and the authorities try to intervene and track down the true identity of Kira.  The head of that investigation is a quirky and mysterious master detective known only as "L."

As far as I can tell, that much of the story is pretty consistent between the different versions that exist.  It started as a successful manga fourteen years ago, which naturally means that now there are like two dozen television shows, movies, novels, video games, and theater productions based on it.  The 2017 English-language adaptation is just another notch in the belt.

So how did this one stack up?  Well, my experience with the franchise is pretty limited.  Other than the latest adaptation, I've only seen about half of the 2006 anime run.  Maybe it's because I have no intimate knowledge of the franchise's history or deep-seated love for its concept that I'm part of the minority that said, "Huh, not bad."

The movie is definitely its own vision.  There's a character named Mia who, as far as I know, is entirely new.  She sorta serves as a foil to Light and represents the corruption that the power of the Death Note can bring, but mostly she's just a stock girlfriend character who drives large chunks of the plot.  I'm not entirely sold on those; significant parts of the movie rely on Light being undeniably, head-over-heels in love with Mia, which is really hard for me to buy into since they're both seventeen and a seventeen year-old's concept of "true love" is as strong and sturdy as your brother-in-law's grasp of world politics.

Not that Mia needs to be blamed for "ruining" the movie - the actress does okay with her and there are some good concepts at play.  It's just that she's one idea too many.  Mia's presence takes away from Ryuk, who starts out as a creepy death god that plays mind games with Light, but quickly turns into a Kramer-esque bit of dark comic relief, occasionally bumbling into the background to say something quirky and pose for the camera.  And all the interesting mindfuck plot twists that should accompany the repeated and crafty use of the Death Note end up serving as a foot note to Light and Mia's tepid romance.

The movie also does away with much of the cat-and-mouse interplay between Light and L, which I recall being one of the main draws of the anime ten years ago.  In its place it injects gore, teen angst, and directorial flourish.

I can see how a lot of people would read all that and say, "Yuck, sounds like they screwed it up."  But honestly, I don't think so.  It's not bad - just different.

Where the 2017 Death Note most succeeds is in giving us a more realistic depiction of what an asshole teenager would do if he was given boundless, divine death powers.  The Light I recall from the anime was an arrogant, detail-oriented super-genius with mental powers, patience, and deduction that would make even House roll his eyes and go, "Bullshit."  The Light from 2017 is smart, sure, but he's still a shithead seventeen year-old.  He's impulsive, angry, and naive.  He outsmarts people by accident more than by design.

I kinda like the movie more for that.  Light isn't a genius who can solve the world's problems if he can just survive the investigation - he's a prick who's still growing up.  Death Note '17 takes that idea and runs with it, giving us something closer to a dark comedy than a contemplation of morality.  Gone are the self-serious monologues about crime and punishment; present are the sparks of self-cognizance that say, "Hmm, maybe I'm too young to be a god."

My take on all this is not that Death Note '17 went too far with its changes, but rather that it did not go far enough.  There's a great dark comedy here waiting to burst through, but it's trapped by scenes that try to pay homage to its source material.  You know how to make this a more interesting movie?  Scrap L and Ryuk altogether.  Just make it a sort of modern-day Heathers about two idiot kids who are too self-absorbed to realize the gravity of what they're doing.  Play up the brutal humor of their murders and extend the third act into a cat-and-mouse between Light and Mia.

You do that, and then you'll have a unique, memorable, and witty take on an already unique and memorable premise.  As is, it's just kind of okay, and almost certain to piss off all the purists who, I'm sure, have already spewed a collective two million words on the Internet explaining how this movie killed their childhoods.  Oh well, at least the trolling is kinda fun.

My Rating: 3 / 5