TV Review: ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Is A Jazzy Reimagining Trying To Hold A Rhythm

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Netflix's live-action remake of the acclaimed 90s anime series, Cowboy Bebop, starring John Cho as the always cool Spike Spiegel.
User Rating: 7

Well, they finally did it. That’s a statement I’ve used many times over the years when dealing with the inevitability of revamping specific IP. Hollywood has been circling Cowboy Bebop for a while. It goes back to 2009 when Fox announced plans to make a live-action movie starring Keanu Reeves as Spike Spiegel. Over a decade later, Netflix has put together its take on the popular 90s anime series with showrunner Andre Nemec (Alias, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and writer Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarök, The Mandalorian). This 10-episode, hour-long series (averaging around 45-ish minutes each) has a lot to live up to. Still, even while marching to the beat of its own jazzy groove, it can only do so much to leave behind the shadow of the original series.

Based on the original 26-episode anime series from director Shinichiro Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071 and focuses on a ragtag group of bounty hunters who chase down criminals all over the solar system. Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) is an ex-cop and captain of the Bebop. Spike Spiegel (John Cho) gets along fine with Jet but holds back his violent history by relying on sarcasm and occasional crankiness. Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) eventually teams up with the crew, but this free-spirited freelancer has her own problems that don’t help her trust issues when it comes to relying on others.

Episodes generally follow Spike and Jet (and sometimes Faye) looking for various bounties to make what seems like the bare minimum of a reward (a running joke is how close the Bebop is to falling apart due to old parts). However, one throughline follows the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. Spike has some connections here, but this portion of the story belongs to Vicious (Alex Hassell), a power-hungry gangster and Spike’s nemesis. The two have found themselves at odds for reasons involving Julia (Elena Satine). She was once the object of both their affections.

The most fortunate thing is the core casting of the Bebop crew. This series features five main characters, and three of them are excellent. John Cho is outstanding casting for Spike Spiegel. The aloof bounty hunter who is deadlier than nearly anyone he encounters has to be a cooler than cool figure that is fun to be around. While Watanabe had a wide variety of influences for the series, Spike feels like a new version of Phoenix Tetsu, the reluctant assassin from Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (and was drawn from the Japanese series Detective Story). Honestly, if there’s one thing that holds this series together, it’s the restraint in revealing too much about Spike, while Cho handles the effortlessly cool factor with ease. This is especially crucial in the way action plays a role in various episodes.

Mustafa Shakir is also great as Jet. While Spike is some kind of wild combination of Bruce Lee and Le Samourai’s Jef Costello, Jet is more of a bruiser channeling a Philip Marlowe who loses. This is a man who has a cybernetic arm caused by a betrayal and a daughter from an ex-wife he hardly gets to see. He’s also one looking to bond with those who choose to fly with him, as he needs something stable in his life. Shakir works to find the balance between his gruffness and his warm side, and as the series moves along, it becomes a stronger and stronger effort. It doesn’t hurt that he and Cho share terrific chemistry while bonding over the fun they have taking down bounties.

For her efforts as Faye Valentine, Daniella Pineda supplies the energy needed for the loose cannon the character is supposed to be. Working as a mildly antagonistic component to the Bebop crew (bratty sister is also fair), Pineda has to be believable as one who would both help Spike and Jet, as well as leave them to get what she wants in a heartbeat. That latter part of her attitude is, of course, a cover, but the series finds the right ways to play her development as we learn more about her through the course of this season.

While this series wisely doesn’t try to entirely replicate each episode of the anime, it is the intriguing update of Vicious and Julia that does the least to help this take on the material. Even in a vacuum, where Cowboy Bebop doesn’t have to contend with thoughts on the original version, I can’t say Hassell or Satine brought much to their characters. Hassell’s body language never quite gels with what Vicious is supposed to represent – the yin to Spike’s yang. Similarly, while Satine gets a chance to build more out of Julia, who is little more than a cipher in the original series, the material provided still doesn’t enhance her drama.

Fortunately, the efforts to make the Syndicate plotline more significant still only factor in so much, as the bulk of the series wants to emphasize fun. To that extent, the series more or less achieves what it is going for. With the original influenced by everything from noir to French new wave to spaghetti westerns to Tarantino, there’s more than enough to work in this form of media as well. At its best, the show is a live-wire that capitalizes on the blend of fights, quips, and its jazzy score.

Sadly, it’s never been easy to deliver on live-action anime. There are only so many directors who have successfully pulled this off. I look to the Wachowskis, Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Robert Rodriguez, and Kenji Misumi (Lone Wolf and Cub), among few others. This Netflix version of Cowboy Bebop is no Wachowski movie. At its worst, the show tends to feel more like cosplay than an expensive sci-fi series involving interstellar travel and elaborate action scenes. Directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman do their best to inject a lot of style, and some episodes work better than others. Still, the series isn’t exactly a game-changer in terms of its visuals.

It’s funny, as we are now in a place where the anime (which was influenced by everything from Pierrot le Fou to Desperado) has influenced shows and movies such as Firefly and The Matrix. In return, this live-action series has to balance influences from those types of shows and movies while operating on its own level. It’s an effect similar to video game movies that rip off other films, despite being games already influenced by certain movies, to begin with (I’m looking at you Uncharted). Regardless, this may be a series that viewers want to play well as itself, but one can’t help but enjoy when it’s referencing the series directly, as opposed to mirroring stuff that’s come since.

Perhaps the best choice was to bring on the series’ original composer, Yoko Kanno, who imbues Cowboy Bebop with a mix of big band jazz, blues, and funk. The first episode (or “Session”) of the series, “Cowboy Gospel,” gets things off to a good start in this regard. Lifting tracks right out of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a fun way to deliver a first impression. And, of course, recreating the intro theme, “Tank!” by Seatbelts (a band led by Kanno), is the only way to really handle this show without upsetting fans. The huge, big-band opening number is the perfect way to start any episode, let alone a terrific way to just wake up in the morning, or do anything, really (I like “Tank!” a lot).

I only wish that spirit was consistently applied to this series. Some odd choices ultimately take things down, such as trying to ground an anime series in the real world. I don’t need this show to be an exaggerated take on reality. At the same time, why make the color scheme so drab? There’s a world of color to choose from, which would undoubtedly help this series stand out. Instead, while there’s plenty of production design to admire (as well as use as a tool to establish how this world functions), I wanted more than just the character’s costumes to pop in a given moment.

The action is also a significant component, and Cowboy Bebop does a decent job in this area. Despite being a heavy smoker, Spike relies on martial arts and quick draw skills with a gun to get his job done. We don’t see nearly enough of Spike engaging in close-quarters combat, but the bursts of energy that come from him (as well as Faye and Jet) getting in on the action can be a lot of fun.

Despite various unique settings, the sequences are shot okay (the choreography doesn’t quite know where to lean), relying on a comedic intent sometimes over others. As one spoiled with great action to look to in other areas, I wanted more. Similar things can be said about the use of spaceship-related action. Of course, there’s also a budget to be concerned with, so I’m not against how sporadically this plays a role.

Thematically, this series travels in similar areas as the anime. When it’s not all fun and games, characters deal with their loneliness, paths toward revenge, making amends, and more. The series does well when committing to its more emotionally poignant moments. It’s another way to highlight how strong the core trio can be when the style can settle down and allow for more than just comparisons to other media.

It’s also interesting to look at how this version of the show can take specific ideas further. While still a product of the 90s, the anime subverted aspects regarding sexuality and its application to the characters. Here, the role of gender identity is explored more, without calling attention to it. That’s not to say Cowboy Bebop is the most progressive sci-fi experience Netflix has to offer (Sense 8 takes the crown, easily). Still, the work to preserve that area of the anime and do more with it is appreciated.

With plenty of callbacks to the anime, an evident passion for trying to build out this world, and at least three cast members who have plenty to offer, this first season of Cowboy Bebop accomplishes a lot, despite feeling rough around the edges. It’s certainly watchable, as there’s too much style and attitude at play to make it ever feel boring, even when it’s too obvious for its own good. With 10 episodes that are double the length of an average anime episode, it fortunately rarely feels like there’s any filler. Perhaps that’s because fans of the show know there’s a particular arc for these characters (although, be prepared for various changes). With that in mind, even casual viewers should get enough out of this series based on what it’s presenting. Hopefully, a follow-up season shows more confidence in the production. Still, for now, I was happy jamming with what they cooked up.

Cowboy Bebop will be available to stream on Netflix, starting November 19, 2021.

 

7
Good
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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