Cowboy Bebop Review: Ambitious, Naïve, Thrilling and Sometimes, Boring
A ragtag crew of bounty hunters chases down the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals. They’ll save the world – for the right price.
Is Cowboy Bebop worth watching?
More than a decade after a big-screen adaptation was announced, a live-action take on the popular Japanese sci-fi neo-noir Cowboy Bebop is finally here! It doesn’t star Keanu Reeves and it won’t be released theatrically, but if you’ve never watched the original anime, you should find a lot to like. And that’s perhaps the best compliment I can give the new Netflix show— it will likely motivate millions of people to watch the original series (also on Netflix)— and introducing a new generation to Shinichiro Wantaname’s seminal anime is always a good thing.
Unfortunately, fans of the original will likely be disappointed, but that’s to be expected. I mean, let’s be honest, a live-action version of the beloved anime was always going to be a tough sell for die-hard fans but if you have little-to-no expectations and are simply seeking a good time, look no further. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, it boasts an abundance of offbeat humor, exciting set pieces, gorgeous cinematography, inventive camerawork, and a killer soundtrack which just so happens to be composed by Cowboy Bebop’s original composer Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts. The soundtrack includes several original songs and re-recorded classics and needless to say, it’s the only thing about this remake that everyone seems to agree is good. Kanno’s jazzy, melancholy freeform soundtrack is easily one of the best things about the show and truly helps elevate certain scenes in which the cast break into song and dance. Expect a few musical numbers including one jazzy nightclub solo and two characters (and a dog) dancing the tango in a scene that looks like it was lifted from Rob Marshall’s Chicago.
There’s no denying the passion and enthusiasm of everyone involved in making Cowboy Bebop. It’s obvious the creative team have a ton of respect for its predecessor and it looks like they had a blast making the show. This live-action remake is full of charm thanks to its leading cast and most episodes are painfully stylish due to the stunning cinematography by Thomas Burstyn (6 episodes), Dave Perkal (4 episodes), and Jean-Philippe Gossart (2 episodes). Meanwhile, Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman who split directorial duties, deliver plenty of flashy camera trickery and an authentic mix of environments from the desolate wastelands to Japanese-inspired sets to futuristic red-light districts and so much more. There’s an entire scene that clearly took inspiration from the iconic House of Blue Leaves showdown in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and a thrilling foot chase that looks like it was lifted from Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Another scene features a bar shootout that looks like it was directed by Robert Rodriguez (think Desperado) and there’s also a brilliant single long tracking shot toward the end of the first season that captures a John Wick-style-shoot-out! Honestly, several episodes show flashes of brilliance and make watching Cowboy Bepop well worth it. If you think the colorful 60s-style opening title sequence is incredible, just wait until you see some of the other visual flourishes.
Influences and Genres
Throughout the season there’s plenty of action to behold including hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat and John Woo-style gun battles, but what I like most about Cowboy Bebop (both the original and this Netflix remake) is how it incorporates a wide variety of genres.
For the unfamiliar, Cowboy Bebop draws heavily from science fiction, westerns, Hong Kong action and film noir. At times you’re watching a space opera and in the next episode, it’s a black and white detective story complete with seedy settings, shadowy lighting, skewed camera angles, cynical heroes, corrupt cops, femmes fatales, and a fatalistic tone. I especially love how the aesthetic incorporates a blend of retro technology such as CRT monitors, analog computers, old automobiles, and other worn-down broken relics of the past. There’s something special about seeing the world brought to life especially in the scenes which appear to be set in the past, even though the show takes place in the year 2071.
Also worth noting is the countless movie references and Easter eggs spread out across all ten episodes. One character/episode, for example, is named after Jean Luc Godard’s masterpiece (and one of my favourite films of all time) Pierrot le Fou. And like Godard’s quintessential work, Cowboy Bebop at times abandons the conventions of narrative cinema and adopts a loose picaresque style that employs an intentionally garish visual aesthetic based on bright primary colors. There’s really nothing else quite like Cowboy Bebop on Netflix— with its eclectic use of music and inventive mix of genres, Cowboy Bebop is visually and culturally rich and relentless in its action. It’s quite possibly one of the coolest looking shows currently available on the streaming giant— which might sound like a ridiculous thing to say, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed this over-the-top galaxy-spanning retro-futuristic sci-fi adventure.
Why was I surprised? Well, it’s no secret that Hollywood has a terrible track record when adapting iconic anime into live-action shows or movies. Whether it’s Adam Wingard’s underdeveloped Death Note or the incredibly hollow 2017 live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell— most adaptations of anime have been complete disasters. Adapting one of anime’s holiest cows is something of a fool’s errand but here’s the thing— among the many Hollywood live-action adaptations of anime series, Cowboy Bebop is one of the best. It’s far from a masterpiece like Speed Racer and it’s nowhere near as good as Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub series— but Cowboy Bebop is an ambitious, albeit messy at times, space opera that’s simply put, fun to watch. Filtered through a Hollywood lens, what was once a seminal work is no longer as good, but such is the case when remaking something so influential. Does it capture the spirit and essence of the original? Probably not, but I’ll leave it up to the passionate fanbase to decide.
What is Cowboy Bebop about?
Like the original, the live-action Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071 and follows a dysfunctional crew of bounty hunters cruising across space aboard a ship, called the Bebop. Their adventures take place years after an event called ‘The Fall’, which saw humans leave Earth and inhabit neighbouring planets. The show follows a criminal-of-the-week format and throughout the first season, the trio comprised of Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) embark on different missions across the galaxy which lead them to cross paths with a variety of eccentric criminals and deadly outlaws. Come to think of it, the narrative structure is somewhat similar at times to another popular show about a bounty hunter, The Mandalorian; and like Disney’s hit series, each episode is only as interesting as the new characters we come across. There is, of course, a through-line to the story that involves Spike’s one-time love Julia (Elena Satine) and her husband Vicious (Alex Hassell), who also happens to be Spike’s former partner in a shadowy criminal organization known as the Syndicate, but more on that later…
The Cowboy Bebop Cast
Above everything else, it’s the cast of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop that really brings the show to life. Even in the worst episode (that would be episode 7), the ensemble are capable of pulling the series back from the verge of disaster thanks to their undeniable chemistry including Ein, the most adorable Welsh corgis you’ll ever see!
The show gets a lot of mileage out of the main cast especially John Cho whose breezy and humanizing performance nails the disaffected cool of Spike Spiegel. Anime fans initially objected to John Cho’s casting because of the age gap, but Cho is amazing as the show’s main protagonist and deadly bounty hunter. He’s funny; he’s sexy,; he can deliver great physical comedy, and he can expertly convey his character’s darker side when Spike’s murky past is revealed. It also doesn’t hurt that he can hold his own in a fight, which he proves early in the first episode.
Mustafa Shakir, on the other hand, is my clear favourite playing Jet Black, a former cop with a cybernetic arm as well as a daughter from an ex-wife whom he rarely sees. The actor who is best known for his role in Marvel’s Luke Cage strikes a perfect balance between his coarseness and his sweet side, and it could be argued that without him, viewers would not care about Spike. As the series progresses, their relationship grows as does the great chemistry between both leads, and the closer he and Spike get, the more likeable Spike becomes.
Rounding off the main trio is Daniella Pineda who plays Faye Valentine, a mysterious, arrogant and lazy con artist who injects some much-needed light-heartedness into the dynamic aboard the ship. The woman of Singaporean descent gives the trio of bounty hunters a sense of comradery even when she is planning on stabbing them behind the back. While Spike and Jet make an entertaining duo, her presence makes the trio an absolute blast to watch.
Vicious and Julia
My biggest issue with the series is Spike’s old syndicate partner Vicious. To put it bluntly, the Julia and Vicious plot is by far the weakest element of Cowboy Bebop. Vicious and Julia (Elena Satine) might be given more to do within the plot of the Netflix series as compared to the anime but unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a success. Alex Hassell is a brilliant Shakespearian actor but I found his character to be the least interesting. Vicious comes across as a mix of V from Devil May Cry and Rhaegar Targaryen of Game of Thrones, only with no special abilities, no charisma and a daddy complex that is both half-baked and a familiar Hollywood trope for any villain. Meanwhile, the overarching narrative between him and Spike is lifted from the most overused Hollywood storytelling formula. It’s an ending you can see coming a mile away and that’s the biggest problem with the series. If you can’t keep viewers invested in the season-long narrative, you risk the chance of them not watching it until the very end, no matter how good everything else is.
It should be noted that while I did enjoy my time with the show, the story wasn’t interesting enough to pull me back in right away. Whereas I usually binge-watch shows that I review, I took my sweet time with Cowboy Bebop, mostly because there weren’t any episodes that ended with any sort of cliffhanger that made me want to immediately watch the next chapter.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop tries hard to stay close to the spirit of the original series, but it doesn’t always stick the landing and suffers from some weak characterizations and undercooked plot threads. The show keeps things fresh by adding news criminals to each episode, but it could use a better antagonist if they make a second season. This series is at times extraordinary but it also at times fails. It is an imperfect beast of an adaptation but sometimes veers into eye-rolling territory.
In a way, it reminds me of another Netflix series, The Umbrella Academy. The first season of that show was aesthetically pleasing and it showed a lot of promise but it was also at times boring. The second season bounced back juggling multiple timelines and narrative threads that were far more interesting while adding more depth to its colorful cast of characters. I sense Cowboy Bebop can do the same if only viewers and Netflix give it a chance. Only time will tell.
- Ricky D
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