The gory thriller “Death Note” tells a fairly simple story about a teenager named Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff of “The Naked Brothers Band” and “The Fault in Our Stars”) who has the power to kill anybody in the world just by thinking of their face and writing down their name. Off-screen though, the making of “Death Note” has been far more complicated — and even controversial.
During what’s been a decade-long development process, the American adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s bestselling Japanese comic book has churned through multiple screenwriters and directors, with both Shane Black and Gus Van Sant attached for a time before “You’re Next” and “Blair Witch” helmer Adam Wingard took over.
The project also passed the through the hands of several production companies and studios before landing at Netflix, which is continuing to spend astonishing amounts of money (in this case reportedly $50 million) for original films. Meanwhile, throughout the production the “Death Note” team dealt with criticism from fans of the Ohba/Obata manga, resentful of Wingard and company’s attempt to westernize a Japanese creation.
Frankly, the finished “Death Note” doesn’t merit all the hubbub and hand-wringing. What Wingard has delivered is a fitfully entertaining, clearly compromised hybrid of action, horror and science fiction. At its best, the picture resembles Wingard’s sharp-edged 2014 cult movie, “The Guest.” More often, it feels like a 100-minute “previously on” montage for a cable TV show.
In addition to Wolff, “Death Note” has “The Leftovers” actress Margaret Qualley as Mia, a classmate of Light’s who becomes his accomplice. Shea Whigham plays Light’s father, James, a Seattle policeman; and Willem Dafoe provides the voice of Ryuk, the spiky deity who gives the antihero his lethal power, then hovers around to help him understand how it works.
Much of the first third of “Death Note” is dedicated to explaining the rules of the title object. Light is entrusted with a mystical book in which he can write down the names of the people he’d like to see dead and specific instructions about how they should go. He can choose to stop being the keeper of the “death note” at any time, if he’s willing to accept responsibility for whatever the next person who owns it will do.
Wingard and his screenwriting team (which includes Jeremy Slater and Charles and Vlas Parlapanides) jump into the action early, as Light decides to use his gift/curse to kill criminals he finds in his dad’s computer database. To cover his tracks, he manages to attribute the deaths to a “Lord Kira,” who quickly becomes a global hero.
The “Death Note” death scenes are gloriously lurid, at times recalling the pulpy excesses of John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. The movie also gets some quirky energy from “Atlanta” oddball Lakeith Stanfield, playing a master-detective who wears a mask and goes by the code-name L to avoid getting written into Light’s death note.
But L’s Japanese associates (played by Paul Nakauchi and Masi Oka), coupled with Stanfield’s staccato, anime-like line readings, underline one of the movie’s biggest issues. Rather than completely re-imagining the source material, Wingard and the writers have dragged along too much of the original’s sprawling plot and cultural trappings, making something that unsatisfyingly compresses and dilutes the full vision of Ohba/Obata’s “Death Note.”
Wingard mounts some impressive set pieces, such as a climactic ferris wheel disaster; and he does well when he delves into the larger social resonance of Lord Kira, who inspires some lively philosophical debates.
But this “Death Note” is snappily paced to a fault. For a film 10 years in the making, it sure feels like everyone involved is in a hurry to get it over with.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: iPic Westwood; streaming on Netflix