THE DEATH NOTE saga is a phe­nom­e­non in Ja­pan. De­but­ing in 2003, the manga se­rial scored Stephen King-level sales, which led to an an­i­mated se­ries and a run of live-ac­tion movies. In Western hor­ror terms, it’s a cross­over suc­cess akin to Thomas Har­ris’ Han­ni­bal Lecter prop­er­ties rather than the likes of, say, the Fi­nal

Des­ti­na­tion fran­chise. There have been Death Note com­puter games, stage mu­si­cals and nov­elty note­books with which to curse your en­e­mies. While com­pa­ra­ble J-hits such as Ring and

The Grudge were eas­ily re­tooled into English- lan­guage ver­sions, an Amer­i­can Death Note has been in de­vel­op­ment hell for a decade and now only emerges af­ter a sig­nif­i­cant pre-pro­duc­tion wob­ble. Di­rec­tor Adam Win­gard (You’re Next,

Blair Witch ) was due to make a theatri­cal Death Note fea­ture for Warner Bros. but the stu­dio put the project into turn­around — only for Net­flix to come to the res­cue. In the event, it’s a shame Net­flix didn’t get on board ear­lier, for the com­pli­cated, sat­is­fy­ingly nu­anced saga would make more sense as an episodic show along the lines of Stranger Things than a stand­alone fea­ture. If you’re new to this world, Win­gard’s

Death Note has a lot go­ing for it but long-time Death-no­tees will re­gret the loss of great swathes of plot (along with a bunch of vivid sec­ondary char­ac­ters) and the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion not only of the story but of the moral­ity.

The hump the film gets over suc­cess­fully is the com­pli­cated, far-fetched cartoon con­ceit. There are pages of densely writ­ten rules about how the death curse works — Win­gard adds a de­li­cious, savvy touch about the way no-one ever reads terms and con­di­tions, even when their lives (or souls) are at stake. Then there’s the Ja­panese death god who be­comes the teen pro­tag­o­nist’s in­vis­i­ble best friend — a po­ten­tially lu­di­crous ef­fect suc­cess­fully re­alised with less car­toon­ish CGI than in the Ja­panese films and a ter­rific voice per­for­mance from Willem Dafoe, who de­liv­ers the per­fect mix of friendly mal­ice and sin­is­ter unc­tu­ous­ness. Lead­ing man Nat Wolff, although cred­i­ble as a smart school out­cast, strug­gles with the arc of Light, who goes from ag­grieved lo­cal vig­i­lante to a glob­ally fa­mous fig­ure of ter­ror (adopt­ing the name ‘Kira’) as his cam­paign to slay un­touch­able evil­do­ers gets un­der­way. His po­si­tion is com­pli­cated be­cause his own fa­ther (Whigham) is the hon­est cop in charge of the case, and the teenage su­per­sleuth L (Stan­field) called in to catch the un­catch­able mur­derer re­alises Kira must be linked to the Seat­tle po­lice depart­ment.

The plot hinges on a bat­tle be­tween the su­per­nat­u­rally aided Light and emo Sher­lock Holmes L, but both are up­staged by Mia (Quil­ley), Light’s girlfriend and co-con­spir­a­tor. She dom­i­nates the lat­ter stages as she de­cides she knows bet­ter and sets out to win the death god over to her side. In­evitably, a lot more story is set in mo­tion than can be re­solved, but there’s so much great stuff here you hope there’ll be fol­low-ups to ex­plore the rest.

The Seat­tle po­lice had opted for rad­i­cal new uni­forms.

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