Review: ‘Cowboy Bebop’ recreates the look, but not the feel, of the classic anime series it’s based on

It isn’t an understatement to say that the 1998 anime series Cowboy Bebop, directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, written by Keiko Nobumoto, and scored by Yoko Kanno, is a masterpiece. Binding together influences from around our world, in particular noir thrillers like The Big Sleep, westerns like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and science fiction classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it became a gateway anime for many –including myself.

Its 26-episode (and one movie) run is far more approachable than most anime series. Despite its near-flung future setting –where the earth is ruined, and the solar system colonized–, Cowboy Bebop became a stone-cold classic of the genre that holds up to this day.

It’s only natural that someone would want to remake it as a live-action series; the only surprise here is how long it took to do so. With such an intricate world and iconic characters, adapting it was never going to be easy. Still, while Netflix has wrangled a promising cast and put a ton of money into re-creating the future of the anime series, they managed to miss the mark.

MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

It’s difficult to say precisely where the series goes wrong as there is no one thing that sends it over the edge. Instead, it’s a death by a thousand cuts: lousy dialogue, choppy editing, tonal shifts that will give you whiplash, and attention to the aesthetic but not the heart and soul of the original.

On that last point, there is a lot to praise. The Bebop itself, the ship the characters live on, is recreated in stunning detail, as is the Swordfish (the fighter piloted by John Cho’s character Spike), but on the other side, the series spends nearly no time at all in space or the air. Where the original has intense and engaging chase and battle scenes, these ships mostly land so the characters can film scenes in a backlot.

That backlot is a strange mix, too. The costume design is entirely on point, but the dedication to the retro-noir aesthetic over the more eclectic mix of influences in the original make every location feel the same instead of like each planet or asteroid has its own culture and feel.

The editing leaves much to be desired, too. This is surprising given the excellent teaser Netflix released a few weeks ago, itself a masterclass of planning and editing, but the series favours cutting fast and frequently. Presumably, this is to make fights and chases feel faster, but the result is that as a viewer, it is difficult to see what’s happening. This is especially disappointing given how dynamic, and cinematic the editing and (for lack of a better word) cinematography of the original is, which has some of the best fight sequences ever animated. The overall look of this series ends up feeling lacklustre as well. Many shots feel flat, either by way of composition or lighting.

(L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS and JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

The casting for the main characters is, thankfully, quite good. John Cho is quite good as Spike Spiegel and maintains the character’s aloof, devil may care attitude. Mustafa Shakir is pitch-perfect as Jet Black, the gruff ex-cop with a past full of baggage, so much so that it’s almost a shame he wasn’t around 23 years ago to voice the original character. The standout is Daniella Pineda, though, not only because she does the best with the material (more on that in a moment) but because her character Faye Valentine has undergone the most revision and updates. No longer relegated to (mostly) being just a sex pot, Faye is engaging and dynamic, and Pineda injects genuine pathos and humour wherever possible.

That being said, a lot of the dialogue feels like it’s about a draft away from being finished. Almost any time the script is trying to be clever, it feels forced, and many times when it is trying to be funny, it falls flat entirely, and there are some odd tonal shifts to deal with. For example, one sequence early on has a ballroom attacked by eco-terrorists who are portrayed as bumbling and played entirely for laughs, but when they manage to demonstrate the weapon they have acquired, it results in one of the more gruesome sequences in the entire series.

(L to R) DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Another major shift made from the original to this series is in the format. Not just in terms of making fewer, longer episodes, but in expanding the characters backstories and revisiting them on an ongoing basis. We live in an age of serialized storytelling, and this is generally a good thing, but one of the great strengths of the original was its anthology structure. Where there are only a handful of episodes that deal with Spike’s past as a hitman and star crossed lover in the original, this series spends a significant portion of its runtime with his former partner Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine), the lover that came between them. This might not be a bad thing if it weren’t for the story going exactly how you probably already think it will.

Plus, Hassell gets some of the worst of the dialogue and frequently dials his performance to eleven, whether the scene calls for it or not. It’s hard to fault him, he’s making do with what he’s been given, but his character is probably the best example given when I say that the creators couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted a grounded update or a live-action cartoon.

Jet and Faye’s backgrounds are expanded as well. Faye’s story of a woman with no memory of who she is given greater depth and importance, which is a good thing because, as mentioned above, her character needed the most updating. This version of Jet has a daughter with his estranged ex-wife, and the scenes where he is trying to spend time with her prove to be some of the most fun for Shakir. Interestingly, the backstory of the dog Ein is excised almost completely from this series, and unlike the original, he is almost entirely decorative. I am guessing this is another casualty in the battle between the grounded and cartoony tones that are ever fighting in the series.

(L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL, MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK, DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE and EIN in Cowboy Bebop Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

There are things to like in this series. John Cho is an excellent actor, and his hair is absolutely magnificent. Mustafa Shakir is fun as Jet, and his chemistry with Cho is great. Some of the best scenes in the entire series involve them simply talking to one another. Pineda is excellent as Faye Valentine and is the MVP of the series. Her wit and timing are well used. Finally, the design of the ships is great, and while it’s all a little samey, the production design people clearly had a great time.

Unfortunately, none of that is enough to surmount the series flaws. There’s just no getting over the dialogue or the editing or the tonal inconsistencies. So while it manages to (mostly) recreate the look of the original Cowboy Bebop, it misses out on its feeling.

Good news, though: the original still exists.

Cowboy Bebop will premiere globally on Netflix on Friday, November 19th. I have seen all ten episodes.


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