There’s a certain group of anime fans who might go in wanting to hate Netflix’s take on Cowboy Bebop – yet the show will win you over.
The live-action adaptation of Shinichirō Watanabe‘s seminal 1998 anime was always going to face an uphill struggle, partly due to its passionate fanbase and the streamer’s so-so record with ropey first seasons. But thanks to its razor-sharp dialogue and inspired casting choices, Cowboy Bebop is overflowing with charm, personality, and style – becoming a worthy companion piece to the original series.
Cowboy Bebop sees bounty hunter Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and gruff ex-cop Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) traverse the cosmos in desperate need of Woolongs (the galaxy’s currency) and a hot meal. Despite constantly being in pursuit of some of the most lecherous criminals this side of Venus, their hot-headed bad cop/hungry cop dynamic usually means they end up with both empty pockets and empty stomachs.
Things soon look up: they are joined on their good ship Bebop by the amnesiac livewire Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda, in a performance so magnetic you’ll wonder why the show doesn’t go all-in on her sooner) and Ein, a mischievous, scene-stealing Welsh Corgi.
The core cast are all exceptional. Right from the opening salvo, any fears that they may act as pale imitators are instantly allayed.
Spike and Jet’s tense premiere scene set in a space casino is proof enough. Their banter and hilariously bad timing sees a hostage situation spiral out of control and, latterly, into outer space. It eagerly sets the tone for the sort of madcap adventures they’ll go on in each episode, from Olympia to Mars and every dusty or rain-soaked hellhole in-between.
The show manages to get an incredible amount of mileage out of the trio of humans and one Very Good Boy. Each line shared between them always feels essential, often laced with equal parts world and relationship building, and not the sort of clumsy exposition that can sometimes sink a near-future sci-fi series. That’s because showrunner André Nemec clearly knows the secret to good television: when a second’s never wasted, you’ll treasure every moment.
Everything – including Spike’s ice-cool one liners and incessant bickering with Faye – peels back another layer of their surprisingly dark pasts. The Bebop crew’s high-octane escapades mask some serious solitude, but it never gets in danger of being too overwrought. There’s enough depth here for viewers to pull for each of these characters beyond whichever bounty from Big Shot they have in their sights.
Carrying that weight
Each world they travel to is similarly well-realized. Admittedly, some sets clearly need a more sizeable budget, but the sheer attention to detail by the production designers helps overcome that handicap. There’s an authentic mix of environments, from the desolate wastes of New Tijuana to Mars’ sultry, swinging nightclubs, each tinged with distinct western, noir, and cyberpunk influences. These colorful, three-dimensional bounty hunters are already driven by actors and writers on top of their game, so it’s pleasing to note that they have a beautifully crafted universe to bounce around in too.
The show’s general narrative, meanwhile, follows a criminal-of-the-week format, rarely outstaying its welcome and making Cowboy Bebop easy to dip in and out of at leisure. It does, however, make a handful of episodes feel rushed to meet its runtime. Bounties’ motivations are glossed over and occasionally undercooked, which is a real disappointment for those hoping to see the anime’s motley crew of robbers and revengers make a true leap to live action.
If a bounty hunter is only as good as its bounty, the premise of some of these so-called ‘Sessions’ – such as a sped-up Murdock plotline involving eco-terrorism – are a few Woolongs short of having real value. A few two-parters would have certainly alleviated that pressure and given villains such as the Teddy Bomber and Hakim a new lease of life on the streaming service.
There is, of course, a larger throughline to the story – and it’s one far more pronounced on Netflix than it ever was in the original series.
Spike’s one-time love Julia (Elena Satine) has married Vicious (Alex Hassell), Spike’s former brother-in-arms at the Syndicate, a shadowy criminal organization that once tried to have John Cho’s bounty hunter killed. Their cat-and-mouse chase persists throughout the series and the added wrinkle of Julia in the middle makes for an interesting enough premise, but the chemistry just isn’t there. It’s hard to buy the pair as former co-workers, let alone eternal rivals.
A Vicious takedown
Truth be told, the Julia and Vicious plot is by far the weakest element of Cowboy Bebop. It doesn’t help that Vicious looks like a dollar-store Targaryen costume cobbled together on Halloween, but the villain also comes equipped with amateur dramatics that should have been tempered. The show is so careful with its subtle tone and style elsewhere that Vicious is a poor misstep in a series that prides itself on coordinated footwork as it treads its own path.
Speaking of footwork, the bounty-on-bounty hunter action is also a slight step behind the fizzing banter and cinematography. The fight choreography sometimes sneaks in a semblance of rhythm, though always feels in danger of creaking under suspiciously quick camera cuts and clunky movements.
In the end, you’re not going to care too much about that. Broadly speaking, Cowboy Bebop is a blast from start to finish. The changing of the criminal guard in each episode keeps things fresh and punchy, while the show deviates just enough from its source material to keep veterans on their toes and newcomers glued to their Netflix account.
It would also be remiss not to mention the excellent score by Cowboy Bebop’s original composer Yoko Kanno. Her jazzy, melancholy soundtrack is masterfully balanced; wistful when required, and always on standby to zap energy into what would otherwise be a listless scene. Much like the Nineties classic, these tracks are going to be on repeat for years to come.
You can breathe easy now. Cowboy Bebop is good. Really good. There are certain dings that need to be buffed out of the bodywork – Vicious, the fight scenes, and less rushed bounty plots among them – but this is a rare thing: a stellar remix that hits all the right notes. We can’t wait for an encore.
4 out of 5
Cowboy Bebop review: “A stellar remix that hits all the right notes”
A dazzling live-action adaptation of an animated classic, Cowboy Bebop features strong lead performances in a series that is only let down in places by an OTT villain and slight pacing issues