A word of warning at the start. These impressions of L: Change The World contain some spoilers regarding the plot of the second Death Note film, The Last Name. I don’t normally give a hoot about spoilers and especially not when it concerns goofy stuff like this, but I think the second film is yet to be released in North America outside of festivals and import DVDs so it’s probably bad form for some unsuspecting soul to run across something major that they didn’t want to hear.
So, that aside, I’d like to share some thoughts on L: Change The World which came out recently on DVD in Asia. It was also shown at the New York Asian Film Festival, though I have no idea why, as it’s not deserving of so much attention. The film is a spin off from the Death Note movie series, themselves adaptations of a comic book. The movies have been hugely popular in Japan, leaving the filmmakers in a bit of a tight spot. On one hand, making another sequel would be a guaranteed money maker. But at the end of the second film, almost all the main characters are dead. The solution that props up L is clever, if perhaps the only clever thing in the whole film, and ties in well with the previous movie.
The story of this spin off focuses entirely on the master detective known only by the code letter L. A hunched eccentric with an incredible knack for crime solving, the events of the previous Death Note films have left L victorious but with only 23 days to live. Meanwhile in Thailand, a deadly man-made virus has destroyed a small village and soon ends up in the hands of ecological terrorists who plan to wipe out mankind and rebalance the ecosystem. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time (about 20 minutes) before L is on the case, using his final days to try and stop the terrorists.
It’s not essential to have seen the previous Death Note films to understand the plot of this picture, and I can’t really recommend them, but it does add a little to the experience. If you haven’t seen them, the first ten minutes will be randomly annoying, with a big demon appearing, a magic book being burnt, people appearing for a single scene and then never being seen again and a character central to the plot dying in the first couple of minutes. After that though the film is so by the numbers that so long as you’ve watched any movie before, never mind a Death Note one, you’ll not have any problem guessing what will happen next.
The movie is filled with overacting daytime TV style performances save for the one that matters, Kenichi Matsuyama’s interesting turn as L. Though Tatsuya Fujiwara probably got more screen time in the first two films, Matsuyama’s performance was hilariously absurd and a lot of fun to watch. Matsuyama plays L as a cat controlling a human robot. He perches on chairs, holds mobile phones by the aerial and consumes nothing but various cakes and sweets held on skewers. Matsuyama’s act is still funny in this film, but too much screen time dilutes the effect somewhat, plus he can’t do anything with the script that he’s given.
Another blip in Death Note that is less excusable here is L’s amazing power of deduction. We are told he is a detective genius but where aren’t really shown any justification for this. We don’t really see his thought process. He just looks a case file and solves it like Nancy Grace, by immediately declaring who did it. They seem to miss the point, that detective stories are not much fun is nothing is being worked out. L:Change The World doesn’t have a bunch of clever twists and discoveries, it just has plot developments which unfold in tedious sequence.
It’s also strange that since the main appeal of the film is the star character, that they would change him quite profoundly, due to the horrible script. For instance, when in a dangerous face-off, I was curious to see how the usually moping L would handle this physical situation, how he would outwit the enemy, but he actually just throws a cup at someone. Likewise toward the end of the film, it seems as though L will miss the plane that the terrorists are on. I assumed there would be some kind of trick going on that L had worked out in advance. But no, he just suddenly breaks into a dash and leaps at the open airplane door like something out of Die Hard 2.
The worst has to be angling so much of the film around two new kid characters. This almost turns big swathes of the film into some kind of Daddy Day Care, with him trailing about two child actors for at least half of the running time. One kid sidekick can spell the end of even the best franchises, a ropey one like this certainly can’t support two kid sidekicks.
This modern Japanese movie features something I thought had died out in early 90s Hong Kong, that is extended sequences of people speaking English even though they seem to be doing it entirely phonetically and awkwardly, reading lines that were put there by the screenwriter and weren’t checked with a native speaker. It also features another early 90s Hong Kong staple, the horrible foreign “actor” who is just some guy they found on the street. If someone told me this film was a one off that had been made by Wong Jing in 1991 with no explanation for the demon or death sentence parts, I might have believed it, and looked on the shoddy writing and incongruent plot development as proof.
Alas this film isn’t the work of Wong Jing, but Hideo Nakata, a man on an incredible slide who keeps landing on his feet financially. After breaking through into mainstream recognition with Ring, he has made a remarkable amount of total rubbish, probably hitting rock bottom artistically by directing the unrepentantly awful The Ring Two, the sequel to the American remake of his own film. I can’t muster any fondness for his original, tedious Dark Water but it seems like Don’t Look Now compared to The Ring Two.
L: Change The World is Hideo Nakata at his safest and most lazy as a director. There is nothing remarkable about how this picture is put together. Anything that’s interesting it takes from the first two films which were shot by a journeyman director, Shusuke Kaneko. He didn’t have too many bright visual ideas either (although I liked the brief glimpse of the stop-motion realm) but but he did have a good grasp of pacing which helped the first film in particular. Nakata, despite being a more recognisable name, can’t even muster that much.
In the end it’s hard to recommend L: Change The World to anyone but die-hard fans of the series who will no doubt watch it anyway. Fans of detective stories will be disappointed and Kenichi Matsuyama’s humorous performance is much more enjoyable in the previous pictures. L mostly reminds me of another Japanese spin off film, Negotiator Mashita Masayoshi, another movie which tried to coast on affection for the main character and somewhere along the way forgot to come up with either a mystery, a solution or anything interesting for those involved to do.