It’s always too good to be true, isn’t it? Take a hit film, extract a beloved character, and set him or her on their very own adventure. This is the idea behind L: Change the World, a spin-off of the Death Note franchise that I wasn’t altogether opposed to. Free from an unsavory lead and half-developed themes, the pictures’ quirkiest character would finally get a place in the sun. But while L: Change the World’s protagonist is as loopy as ever, he definitely traded down in the mystery department, conjuring a pale caper that’d barely make it into a Chuck Norris vehicle.
Ringu maestro Hideo Nakata helms this thriller focused on Death Note’s oddest character, a young man simply known as L (Ken’ichi Matsuyama). The eccentric detective put an end to the dastardly deeds of Light Yagami at the end of Death Note II, though doing so meant literally signing his own life away. Now with only 23 days left until his end, L devotes himself to his last and toughest case yet. After it consumes a Thai village, scientists come across a virus with the strength of a bajillion Ebolas. The strain instantly becomes the target of Blue Ship, a group of terrorists/environmental nutjobs who want to use it to wipe away all of humanity. But thankfully, L is on the hunt, and with the help of two kids who might hold the key to a cure, he remains determined to spend his final days helping the planet avoid its own gruesome fate.
If you’ve seen Death Note, then you can attest to how unique of a character L is. He’s certainly worth exploring in his own project, especially when the Death Note flicks did a sporadically successful job of playing him against a formidable foe. The trick is to give the man something interesting to do, which is where L: Change the World falters. L is out of his element here, and not in an endearingly wacky, Crocodile Dundee sort of way. Even though L’s battles with Light didn’t work all the time, at least they did some of the time and had an intriguing philosophy. No such luck here, where Nakata hurls L into full-blown action mode. L gets into car chases, leaps onto planes, and generally does everything possible to ruin his mystique. It’s through the sheer quirkiness of Matsuyama’s performance that viewers don’t turn off the tube and turn to the pages of Highlights for entertainment.
But even if one takes L and all elements of Death Note (which have little bearing on the story to begin with) out of the equation, this is still one boring flick. L: Change the World fancies itself a race against time thriller with shades of Outbreak, though there’s little urgency to speak of. The movie takes its sweet time traversing the story, which means seeing a lot of scenes with people talking about doing stuff instead of — oh, I don’t know — doing it. There’s also a fair amount of clutter to be excised, particularly with L’s pint-sized companions. A scientist’s daughter figures into the story, but a little boy is chucked in with no discernable purpose. I guess the idea is to coax out L’s paternal instincts, but with the girl already there, L chiefly gets stuck with babysitter duties. Still, the acting on a whole is decent; Matsuyama easily steals the show, though Youki Kudoh (Snow Falling on Cedars) proves to be a more sinister villain than her spastically evil comrades.
L: Change the World is a true conundrum; Death Note fans will be irked at how much the film is distanced from their beloved manga, while newcomers will feel like they’re missing something. Either way you slice it, the results are pretty underwhelming, though the effort to experiment is appreciated. After the credits roll, L remains as much of an enigma as ever, though you’ll wish he had a less generic send-off than this.