Story = B-
Video = B-
Audio = B-
Yagami Light is a brilliant college student who, one day, finds a notebook simply titled "Death Note." Inside of this book is a list of rules and details as for the use of the "Death Note." When he realizes the power he holds, he decides he's going to make over the world. He wants to make it into a better place by killing those who do others harm. He has been nicknamed by the police "Kira." L, a brilliant detective who lives in secrecy, rises from the shadows and puts his life on the line trying to capture Light. Both L and Light believe themselves on the side of Justice, and the two match wits trying to show exactly which of them is "good" and which of them is "evil." (Source: ANN)
Have you ever watched a movie based on a book, and -- regardless of the quality of the movie -- had a hard time enjoying it because you were constantly comparing it to the source material? Well, that pretty much describes my experience watching the live action Death Note movies. That's probably because this is the first live action movie where I have both read the manga and seen the anime versions, so the story is so ingrained in my head that it's hard not to compare. But to be fair, I'm going to at least try to review it from both the perspective of someone who is coming into it fresh, and someone who has previously experienced the story. So here goes.
One good thing for newcomers is that this is a re-telling of the Death Note story so you won't need any previous experience to understand it. Essentially it revolves around a notebook which will kill anyone whose name is written in its pages. The notebook was previously owned by a Death God named Ryuk who dropped it in the human world just to see what would happen. The notebook is picked up by a genius college student named Light who decides to use the notebook's powers to rid the world of criminals. The UN, having recognized the unnatural number of deaths occurring within the world's prisons, decides to hire internationally renowned detective L to uncover the murderer's identity. A battle of wits between Light and L commences, each trying to protect their identity from the other.
I think that regardless of the medium in which you experience the story, the initial draw remains the same -- that being the whole concept of the Death Note as being an easy and discreet way to kill anyone you choose provided you know their name. What would you do if you had that kind of power? That's the question the viewer starts to ask himself and what sparks curiosity. And then, when you find out that Light is going to use it to kill "bad" people, you have to ask whether or not that action is justifiable, and that moral quandary sparks all the more curiosity. Then you are introduced to the master detective L, and you wonder how it would ever be possible to uncover the identity of someone who had possession of such a covert killing power. And when you see L's genius at work the question becomes how is Light going to keep himself from being uncovered. And that's when it really draws you in.
Then there are the characters themselves. First there's Light. Watching him as he his well meaning intentions are corrupted by the power of the notebook is part of what makes the story so fascinating. And L, with his quirky and unexpected mannerisms, is far from you standard Sherlock Holmes type of detective, making him as much amusing as he is ingenious. And the dynamic between the two -- each believing he are on the side of justice -- is the clincher that completely draws you in.
That's pretty much how the fascination with the story works for any of Death Note's various incarnations. But there are a few things that makes the movies different from the others -- some of which may or may not improve the story depending on your thoughts about the originals.
There are a few complaints that some readers of the manga had with that version, and most all of them came about whenever the L/Light dynamic was interrupted. First there was the whole Yotsuba Group arc where L and Light worked together to get the Death Note away from a group of corporate big-wigs. Another time was at the manga's half-way point, when L was replaced entirely by Near and Mello. The Yotsuba arc is still in the movie, but it is compressed and instead of eight businessmen it involves one woman -- the TV anchorwoman Saeko Nishiyama. And Near and Mello never show up -- it's Light and L all the way to the end which fans should be pleased with.
The major change that fans' reactions will vary for is the addition of Shiori Akino -- Light's girlfriend. I wasn't quite sure what to make of her at first, and originally thought she was just there to act as someone for Light to debate with over the ethics of killing criminals. But as it turns out she plays a much more significant role at the end of the first movie, and acts to illustrate just how far Light has fallen.
Another thing that fans may or may not care about is that there is no internal monologue in the movie like there was in the manga. I personally thought that was the biggest detriment to the movie since, in the manga, I enjoyed seeing how the characters reasoned out their actions. Plus seeing their reasoning added a lot to the suspense. I also think the absense of the thought process detracted from Light's character because without it, he seemed less intelligent and more like he was just purely evil.
I'm sure fans are also wondering how well the actors play those all-so familiar characters. To me the best acting was performed by Light's dad and L. Ken'ichi Matsuyama who played L had the mannerisms down as well as any actor could. From the way he held the cell-phone to eating the candy bars, you can tell he put a lot of effort into studying the source material. (Although, seeing L eat so many sweet in live action is a lot more nausiating. And what that stuff he's eating near the end?! Liquid sugar?) Takeshi Kaga also did a good job as Light's dad playing the stern, focused, dedicated cop who also wants the best for his family. I was less impressed by Tatsuya Fujiwara who played Light. His acting just seemed wooden because he seldom changed his expression. Maybe that was intentional in order to show that Light was hiding something, but it just didn't work very well. A few of the other actors had just the opposite problem, they over-acted. The worst example was with the heart attack victims. Now, I have never actually seen someone have a heart-attack, but the way they portrayed it in the movie was just so over-the-top that I couldn't take it seriously.
Of course the other character in question is the Shinigami Ryuk. How did he do as a CG animation? The results varied between movies. In the first movie he looked okay as long as he didn't move much. But as soon as he starts laughing in the first scene, the animation looked so jerky as to seem amateurish. The second movie improves on the CG quality a lot, especially with the introduction of the new Shinigami Rem.
I actually didn't notice much for the movies' soundtrack. The only thing that I did notice is that the theme song is Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It sounds cool in the trailer, but to me it didn't seem to fit in the movie.
So I'm not sure if this review helped to either show my own opinion of these movies or help determine whether you would be interested in them. At the end of the second movie my thought was something like, "That was kind of okay, but the anime and manga were so much better." I think I'd have to watch the movies a second time -- when my preconceptions are out of the way -- to get better grasp on what I think. But that probably won't happen.