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'Death Note' appeal gets lost in translation

Posted August 23

"Death Note" has spawned a cottage industry in Japan, with the graphic novels (or manga) adapted into animation, movies and TV. Netflix's film based on the property, however, seriously loses something in translation, yielding a thriller that practically suffocates on its own convoluted plot.

The basic premise seems promising enough, with a high-school student, Light (Nat Wolff), having a book labeled Death Note literally fall from the sky into his possession. It's then explained to him by the mischievous creature Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) -- who resembles a cross between "Guardians of the Galaxy's" Groot and a porcupine -- that any name Light writes in the book will die, provided he can think of their face.

A series of grisly accidents follows, as Light and a classmate ("The Leftovers'" Margaret Qualley) go on what amounts to a righteous killing spree, one ledger entry at a time. The owner of the book is dubbed "the keeper," and instructed by Ryuk to help him "separate the wheat from the chaff," or pass the mystical tome on to someone else who will.

The rapid pile-up of bodies naturally catches the attention of the authorities, including a brilliant detective who goes only by the name L (Lakeith Stanfield) who deciphers what's happening with almost comical speed.

After that, "Death Note" begins to careen off the rails, descending into an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Light and L, with the former's dad (Shea Whigham), who happens to be a detective, caught in the middle.

Director Adam Wingard ("Blair Witch") brings a comic-book-esque visual flair to the proceedings, but he can't create much order around the complicated, increasingly ridiculous set of rules. Wingard has already stated his desire to do a sequel, and given the unsatisfying ending, the movie seemingly leaves open the possibility of that to its detriment.

Netflix continues to improvise its way into the movie business, and "Death Note" is part of a reliable genre given the popularity of past Japanese horror imports that yielded U.S. adaptations like "The Ring" and "The Grudge." Just in terms of the "If you liked this, try this" feature, it's probably better tailored to proceed than most.

Underneath it all, "Death Note" potentially has something to say about the corrupting nature of power and unforeseen consequences, but never gets its act together enough to register a coherent commentary.

Instead, the movie merely delivers a dim dose of ho-hum horror -- one whose demise, by all rights, can be attributed to natural causes.

"Death Note" premieres Aug. 25 on Netflix.

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