I liked it. Well, sort of.
You should be aware before I get going that this opinion is controversial. This film is hated by everyone. It's one of those legendarily bad films that mothers warn their children about. You simply do not watch Devilman (2004). Whether or not you're a fan of Go Nagai's manga, you'll despise this live-action adaptation... or so they say.
Naturally this made it a must-watch. In the end, I thought it was a bit lacklustre, but also laudably ambitious and taking the original manga far more seriously than I'd have ever expected. The film's first half is basically a satanic variant on the superhero origin movie, as Akira becomes Devilman. However the second half drops all that. Instead we get a demon apocalypse, the fall of civilisation into anarchy and a pretty fair stab at manga's most famous downer ending ever. It's still recognisably Go Nagai's story. Unfortunately it's also lacklustre and dull, but I'm still impressed with the fact that they actually went through with all this instead of somehow trying to make it audience-friendly.
For a start, the film isn't camp. The fall of mankind is portrayed with witch-hunting mobs, concentration camps and a symbol that combines the Christian cross and the Star of David. "The devils are you humans." You've got scenes in which a demon's caught trying to put make-up on her deformed arm, because she's still a girl. There's also that small boy who doesn't want to go home because his mother's a monster and he thinks she's going to kill him. I respected all that. It's taking itself seriously. The world goes to hell and people die gruesomely because they've been seen trying to help others. This is admirable, but unfortunately it's also a bit directionless. There's not enough Devilman. It becomes a movie without a protagonist, but just a world full of victims trying to survive as civilisation collapses.
Then you've got the special effects. It's got lots of expensive 2004 CGI, or in other words the finale looks like a video game. Whichever way they cut it, they can't win. If they give us a big spectacular fight scene (e.g. the finale), then the results look silly. However if they cut the battle short because they can't afford yet another five-minute knock-down between all-CGI characters, it's underwhelming.
The film's best fight might actually be Devilman-Selene in the first half, yet even that was a terrible sequence. If you can't do Selene properly, don't put her in your film. The version we have here is being played by a dim-looking model who's not even trying to act, showing up for what's basically an extended cameo and then walking off never to be seen again. Theoretically her fight isn't too shabby, but it's still a disappointing sequence because she looks all wrong. There's no nudity. Selene should be topless.
I want to defend the acting, though. It's not as bad as you might have heard, which is to say that only occasionally is it ridiculous. Obviously these people aren't good. That goes without saying. Never was anything more certain than the fact that these people sing in J-pop bands. However for the most part I thought they managed to get as high as "passably wooden", in a way that you could just about imagine seeing at the lower end of a British or American production. Japan can do far, far worse than this. Mind you, this analysis is overlooking Ai Tominaga (Silene) and the surreally incompetent Bob Sapp (World Newscaster), with Sapp unfortunately standing out because his lines are in English. In case you haven't heard of him, he's a celebrity kickboxer, martial artist, wrestler and former American footballer, but not a natural actor.
The story's only faithful in the broad sweep. Details, characters and incidents get omitted, skated over or just hacked around with, so for instance Akira becomes Devilman by being attacked by an ectoplasmic tadpole. The nightmarish nightclub sequence? All gone. Overall it's safer and blander than the manga, with the ultra-violence toned way down and no nudity at all. Instead of having Nagai's terrifying energy, it feels a slow. However that said, you've still got severed body parts and the machine-gunning of crowds, so it's not completely toothless. It also like its imagery. Every so often they'll show you something that would be insane and freaky even if this were full-blown J-horror, so at least that's memorable.
There's also a Go Nagai cameo, which is cool. He's a priest. He doesn't get any dialogue, though.
What most surprised me about this movie was that I could take it seriously. It even has parts that are genuinely good, so for instance the "Akira, you've changed" moment feels natural and true, while I've already praised some of the demonic visuals. What I appreciated the most though was the fact that we're getting the full sweep (although not all of the details) of Go Nagai's story, right through to the apocalypse. By the time the credits roll, they've done a Fist of the North Star and you wouldn't be surprised to see Violence Jack walking out. Anime in contrast has never come close to covering the full story of Devilman, although there have been some scarily faithful OVA adaptations of bits of it.
Mind you, I was undoubtedly helped by my expectations going in. The film's reputation among normal people in Japan is on a par with Casshern
's, another widely despised live-action manga adaptation that actually sounds quite interesting. I wouldn't recommend this one, but I'm also not burying it at a crossroads and salting the earth afterwards. There's surprisingly little of Devilman himself, especially in the second half, but if you don't mind something a bit slow and arty, you could do a lot worse.