Living up to the excellence of Shusuke Kaneko's Death Note films was always going to be a daunting task. The makers of this film responded to this challenge by avoiding it.
The film's prominent ties to its predecessors, most notably the inclusion of several characters and events from them, are entirely superficial, and I was left with the distinct impression that Nakata's primary desire was to make a bioterrorism thriller, with the Death Note movies and the character of L serving merely as convenient springboards.
After going to the trouble of hiring several actors to reprise their roles, (Such as Erika Toda as Misa, Asaka Seto as Naomi Misora, and Shunji Fujimura) their characters are criminally underused. This is not just lazy, it is cruel. It's the equivalent of dangling food in front of a starving dog only to pull it away after only letting them lick it. Even the unperceptive viewer can tell these are blatant attempts to fake a connection which is essentially nonexistent.
The sheer magnitude of neglected opportunities to capitalise on the wealth of plot and character established by the Death Note films is staggering. A event as stupendous as Kira's reign of death would have a lasting effect on society; the Death Note films show the beginnings of this, with people divided over whether his actions were right, and many supporting him to a religious degree. Yet in L: Change the WorLd, its almost as if none of it had ever happened. Life goes on as usual, with scarcely a mention of the monumental upheaval the world has just undergone. This also could've provided many interesting possibilities, such as the Kira cult becoming involved in the plot, or characters such as Misa and Ryuk playing new roles and continuing to develop. Apparently, Nakata couldn't care less.
What's more, he can't resist falling back on his roots as a horror director, and is determined to scare the audience with the victims of the virus. Unfortunately, the result is corniness rather than adrenaline. The rest if the time, he's either plodding through the drama on autopilot, or inserting light comedy in a haphazard manner.
The writing isn't much better. The script is brimming with trite clichés, yet is oblivious to this and makes no effort to put a fresh spin on them. It has some admirable aspirations, namely its attempts to explore L's human side, and capture the topical issues of terrorism and the Bird Flu/SARS scares in the same way that its prequels addressed justice and the death penalty, but in execution it fails. Overall, it largely plays like amateur fanfiction, overusing the surface strengths of the originals (namely L's eccentricity) while losing its deeper strengths. Interesting ideas are left to rot on a compost heap of generic characters, messy plotting, and lame attempts to emulate the excesses of the typical Hollywood action movie.
To his immense credit, Kenichi Matsuyama lifts L above this malaise and squeezes a river of blood from the stony script in his typically witty and charismatic performance. Once again, he embodies the character down to his finest mannerisms, and makes like he just crept off the set of The Last Name. True, his English skills are modest, but this is actually believable; I met many Japanese people who spoke in this way during my time in Japan.
Sadly, however, much the use of English throughout the film is reminiscent of the Heisei Godzilla series in its grating inanity. Also, the Japanese performances outside of Matsuyama range from decent, (Fukuda Mayuko as Maki) to downright cheesy. (Most of the villains) Even Erika Toda as Misa had none of the spark Kaneko drew out of her in the prequels during her brief cameo.
Even Death Note veteran Kenji Kawai's score, while certainly not bad, is a far cry from his work on the previous films, though largely because he's mostly forcibly limited to low key background music and the long periods of sluggish silence Nakata so adores. He finally finds a chance to shine towards the end, where he provides two impressive pieces; an epic cue that accompanies L's arrival at the climax, and a melancholy piece that fits the fittingly touching conclusion nicely.
Cinematography is also a step down, losing the smooth, rich clarity of the Death Note movies for a dry and altogether bland visual style.
Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom; there's some good apples among the piles of rotten ones. As mentioned previously, the ending is suitably poignant, though the tears it almost brought to my eyes are due primarily to my love of and familiarity with the character. I also laughed aloud at several of L's displays of quirkiness, and flushed with joy at the rare but delicious moments of Death-Note-style "intellectual pwnage." The opening title sequence is slick and classy, capturing the feel of its predecessors wonderfully.
The FX are strong for a Japanese film, and are actually slightly more advanced than those of the first two films. The destruction of the infected village is vivid and impressive, and the practical effects for virus's symptoms are mostly well done. Ryuk's execution via CGI during his brief appearance is about on par with his previous incarnations.
But you know something's wrong when your counting the good moments rather than the bad ones.
In the end, the film's highlights are like sweet chocolate chips in a bitter and mouldy cookie. It succeeds as fanservice and as cold commercial calculation, but fails as art, entertainment, or storytelling. It's an awful shame, because with the ingredients left by its marvellous predecessors, it could have been truly great.
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