Too many Grim Reapers spoil the wake in “Death Note: Light Up the New World” — an over-plotted, action-heavy reboot of the groundbreaking Japanese vigilante fantasy that makes murder as easy as jotting down someone’s name. Picking up 10 years after Shusuke Kaneto’s two-part Asian hit, the new installment helmed by Shinsuke Sato tries to multiply the fun by unleashing three shinigami (“Gods of Death”) and six Death Notes on the world. Lacking the scintillating mind games that made the original so watchable, the film is at best a broad action-thriller. Despite good pre-sales in Asia, the movie has yet to bow Stateside but may serve as a warm-up to Adam Wingard’s remake of Kaneto’s superior version.
A 2003 manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takashi Obata, “Death Note” centers on Light Yagami, alias Kira, who decides to “cleanse the world of crime” after receiving a notebook that allows its owner to kill someone just by writing his or her name in it. Combining supernatural fantasy with first-rate sleuthing, the manga also puts forth intelligent arguments that draw the line between vigilante-style justice and by-the-book law enforcement.
The manga was spun off into anime and TV live-action series but the smartly entertaining 2006 two-part movies “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name,” released five months apart, were what propelled the franchise to almost legendary status in Asia. Starring pretty boys Tatsuya Fujiwara as Kira and Kenichi Matsuyama as the genius detective L who went after him, it’s the latter, with his white togs, black mascara, love of lollipops, and weirdly attractive hunched stance, who emerged as a new breed of heartthrob. Hideo Nakata (“Ring”) even made a lazy cash-grab offshoot film that featured the character, “L: Change the World.” Compared to that, this current sequel boasts higher production and entertainment value.
The prologue to “Death Note: Light Up the New World” announces that since Kira’s demise, the Lord of Shinigami (or “Reapers”) is looking for a successor to keep new recruits coming through the gates of Hell, so he scatters six death notes to the mortal world hoping someone with Kira’s chops would put them to good use. The first candidate to pick one up is a Russian doctor (Sergey Kuvaev), who proves that annihilation is better than cure. Then others like him emerge, the most powerful being Sakura Aoi (Rina Kawaei), who’s endowed with “Reaper’s eyes” that enable her to detect the names of her victims just by looking at their faces.
In a scene that’s both the film’s premature climax and its undoing, Sakura, on a murder spree, weaves around human throngs in the Shibuya sector of Tokyo. The palpable atmosphere of mass panic reflects Japan’s residual trauma from the sarin gas attack in 1995. Sato’s control of the crowd scenes make pen and paper credible agents of destruction. However, once victims start dropping like flies, it makes the act of killing so easy and indiscriminate that the elaborate battle of wits in the first two films to obtain a name or protect it — and their resulting intellectual payoff are abandoned. When another protagonist with “Reaper’s eyes” uses the same trick against a hit squad, the race to nullify automatic gunfire with speedy handwriting looks a bit ridiculous.
A special police task force led by Mishima (Masahiro Higashide, “Parasyte”) to deal with the crisis goes nowhere, until L’s protege, Interpol agent Ryuzaki (Sousuke Ikematsu, “After the Storm”), steps in. He obtains crucial knowledge from Reaper Beppo (Tohri Matsuzaka) and engages with a seemingly resurrected Kira in cyberspace. Meanwhile, Shien (Mask Suda), a Kira follower, reawakens the erased memory of Misa (Erika Toda), Kira’s one-time accomplice.
After all the players are in place, the plot is driven by a scramble on both sides to track down all the Death Notes. There are a few twists, including Ryuzaki’s vaguely Oedipal relationship with Arma, the most entrancing of the franchise’s Reapers. But for the bulk of the film’s overlong 135-minute length, the protagonists and their dispensable sidekicks just run around in circles, with Mishima squabbling pointlessly with Ryuzaki.
Following the original story, Reapers and Death Note owners are governed by a set of rules like a board game. Katsunari Mano’s script hasn’t added any new tricks for the protagonists to bend those rules, and, in fact, rehashes a ruse that L used to outwit Kira at the hour of reckoning. Sato, who has directed glossy sci-fi hit “Gantz” and zombie thriller “I Am a Hero” executes action scenes with logistical competence, but the set pieces, whether on a highway, in a mall, or in a deserted mansion, lack the imagination and all-out dynamism of those of their Hong Kong and Korean counterparts.
Despite sporting a hip wardrobe whose color scheme is deliberately opposite to L and Kira’s, Ikematsu and Suda, two of the hottest young actors in Japan, struggle to establish their characters against those portrayed by the charismatic Matsuyama and Fujiwara,. Yet, as the successors to the older rivals, it’s hard for the younger actors to deviate from their personalities. Meanwhile, Mishima’s dramatic function is revealed so late in the narrative that he becomes a third wheel in the drama.
Sleek effects by VFX studio Digital Frontier create a cool, metallic cyber-world that’s more cinematic than previous versions. And CG animation of the Reapers is stunning, giving each a stronger identity than many of the live-action characters. However, Reaper Ryuk (Shido Nakamura) who had an intriguing Faustian relationship with Kira has less chemistry with Shien.