I’ve always thought of the vigilante film as the cynical offspring of the action genre. It’s not easy to take a life, and while Stallone or Schwarzenegger could blow away armies before lunchtime, I admire those productions that ponder if so much blood should be shed at all. I held out hope that the Death Note series would follow suit and use their elements of fantasy to liven things up, but no dice. Such themes are present but barely contemplated, passed over to focus on a game more boring than complex. Death Note II: The Last Name isn’t without its quirky qualities, but it’s disappointing that it took two movies to tell viewers what a fortune cookie could.
Death Note II continues the story of Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a student, who, as the mysterious Kira, can kill by writing one’s name in a special notebook. As the film begins, Light has managed to evade capture and even earn a spot on the task force dedicated to bringing in Kira. But the situation becomes complicated when a second Death Note lands in the hands of TV host/wannabe pop star Misa Amane (Erika Toda). But as Light takes Misa under his wing, the pair still have their greatest threat to face: L (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), the odd, candy-horking detective coming ever closer to catching them in the act. However, as determined as L may be to bring in Kira, Light is equally fixed on covering his tracks — even if it means relinquishing the Death Note.
As the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” plays over the beginning credits, one might get the idea that Death Note II is the pilot for some abomination on the CW. Gladly, it’s nothing of the sort, for this film actually possesses a brain (though it doesn’t always know when to use it). It’s a sequel that benefits from not having to set up much; with the struggle between Light and L already established, the story can get to playing out their conflict more quickly. Death Note II really hits the ground running in this department, as the first hour consists of some nice volleying between the pair. Light might have a god complex, but he’s no dummy, and L’s discovery of where Kira gets his power from is a moment to relish. The characters are elevated to the right degrees (Light much more cunning and L increasingly cautious), with Fujiwara and Matsuyama giving tweaked performances to match.
But for as compelling as Light and L’s quarrel is, there’s precious little of it to around. That is, whenever either party makes a move, the movie spends what seems like forever going over what happened in agonizing detail. Death Note II is full of explaining; characters explaining what they’re about to do, explaining what others are doing, and so on. But for all this talking, not a lot seems to be said. At nearly two and a half hours, Death Note II is pushing itself to begin with, but that its core message is so yawn-inducing is the real bummer. It gears you up for a big huff about the ultimate meditation on justice and such, only to end on the mother of all whimpers. L is as colorful as ever, but Light still gets shafted out of a real arc; the films would have you believe he’s conflicted about his powers, but the dude’s been nothing but a jerk from the get-go. Worse yet is Toda’s character, who’s given a dark back story but spends most of her screen time in a comically kooky haze.
Death Note II: The Last Name is a letdown, but it’s not a lost cause. Again, I appreciated the film’s overall look, the solid performances, and the twists (when they were clever, not arbitrary). I have it on good authority that fans of the manga will see their beloved tome done justice in this faithful (albeit compressed) form. But for those unaccustomed to the story and wary of bladder-busting running times, little will be missed by passing on Death Note II.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Death Note II: The Last Name review here.