Review: Cowboy Bebop (Netflix, 2021)

There’s a memorable scene from Cowboy Bebop, the 1998 anime on which Netflix’s new live-action adaptation is based, where series protagonist Spike lays pinned to the floor of a gothic church by Vicious, his former comrade and a symbol of a brutal past he’s been unable to escape, while pointing his gun back at him. A recreation serves as a climactic shot in the new series, a scene where everything should come together, both the attention paid in replicating details from the anime and the new creative direction toward which the team is taking this series. This is where all the work and genius should pay off.

But that’s not what happens. The action moves too quickly. The dialogue is stilted, and revelations blase. The special effects looks amateurish. And as it turns out, this vision of Cowboy Bebop is unable to fundamentally grasp what made the original series so special and, like too many films produced by the movie-a-minute Netflix, is created by a crew that doesn’t have the skill to develop an exceptional series, no matter—and in part because of—how great the source material is.

At first, though, it seems as if the series might just work. The opening scene of Cowboy Bebop (2021), where space cowboys (bounty hunters) Spike and Jet take down a violent crew in an intergalactic casino, begins with a bang, capturing the energy, humor, violence, and fun of the original, providing a semblance of hope for this adaptation and immediately demonstrating how closely the show will try to adhere to the anime. This devotion to the classic has been described as a desire “to stay true to the anime’s spirit.” Indeed, Cowboy Bebop (2021) has invited comparisons through almost every nostalgia-imbued piece of promotional material Netflix has released and by just how closely it emulates the costumes, art direction, scenes and even entire episodes from its predecessor.

Cowboy Bebop (2021) struggles to use John Cho in a way that shows Spike to be a master of Jeet Kune Do; it relies on faraway and concealed shots in fight scenes, and way more gun play than fistfights. COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

The attention to detail really is off the charts. The Bebop and other ships, as well as the wardrobe for the main cast (though some have and will continue to lament on how anime Faye’s skimpy outfit is covered up in this adaptation and that Vicious is missing the signature crow on his shoulder) is meticulously crafted and modeled often precisely on what was featured in the original. The set pieces and costumes are a sight to behold—when we can see them, that is. Unfortunately, as is also the case with other Netflix series, though most famously in HBO’s final season of Games of Thrones, the dreariness of the scenery makes it difficult to see the backgrounds and design.

Thankfully, Cowboy Bebop (2021) isn’t drawing from a show that relies merely on glitter and shine. Those unfamiliar with the 1998 series will discover that beneath the jazzy and stylish aesthetics, this is a science fiction story with great depth. Spike (John Cho), a lithe, cool practitioner of martial arts with a cloudy criminal past, and his partner, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), a former cop who is down on his luck but nonetheless keeps intact a high moral integrity, fly across the solar system tracking bounties, but are also running to and from their own haunted pasts. Neo-noir elements feed into the feel of the series, which dives as much into the world of gangsters (the Syndicate), speakeasy-style nightclubs, and detectives as it does bounty hunters (space cowboys).

While the writers try to build onto this depth by fleshing out the characters’ pasts and adding other original components to the story, they also tend to stick intimately close to the original. Almost every one of the ten episodes has an anime equivalent, and the general flow of the episodes is the same, too. It’s surprising, then, that the show barely includes a most vital component of the 1998 series, one that has fed other science fiction shows with similarly humorous and genre-bending sensibilities, like The X-Files. As in that series, Cowboy Bebop (1998) frequently referenced and celebrated pop culture, with nods to Aliens, The Killer (in the above-referenced church sequence), and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among dozens of other films, movies, songs, and celebrities. But its notable that this element is immediately missing in the remake. Episode one of the Netflix show, which should be a play on Robert Rodriguez’s breakthrough film, Desperado, doesn’t seem to even acknowledge that connection at all. It plays it straight.

A few pop culture references are made in other episodes, but just barely so, as with one to Game of Death that feels more like an allusion to Cowboy Bebop (1998) making an allusion to the Bruce Lee film. It’s the same in Vicious and Spike’s showdown in the cathedral.

It’s stunning, really, to see this aspect absent from the new series, since the winks and nods are an immense portion of the “spirit” of Cowboy Bebop (2021), that which the team has expressed a desire to get right. What results is the opposite, an imitation of the aesthetics of the anime but not of the deeper heart and soul of the original work. It’s almost as if the creative team doesn’t consist of Cowboy Bebop (1998) fans as advertised, of men and women who watched the show countless times over the past two decades, but rather of those who are only passionate about how cool the show looks. There’s a lack of understanding about the property, and apparently no appreciation at all for the 70s, 80s, and 90s movies, shows, and music the anime celebrated.

…what results is…an imitation of the aesthetics of the anime but not of the deeper heart and soul of the original work.

Rather, Cowboy Bebop (2021) emphasizes a different aspect of the 1998 version—the characters and how they come together as a team and family. While this happens subtly and with intentional discomfort in the 1998 series, it transpires a little too easily here, as when Faye (Daniella Pineda) and Spike forget their past difficulties over a little bit of fishing. If only I could forget how someone aimed a gun at me after some chit-chat about fish and women!

The team’s all here—or is it? My lips are sealed. COWBOY BEBOP (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

This gets back to the profound flaw with Cowboy Bebop (2021)—the inferior quality of the scripts. I frequently scratched my head at why certain elements were retained from the anime and others changed. Take “Binary Two-Step,” for instance, the 2021 episode analogous to “Brain Scratch” (1998). Spike is taken in by a cult connected to digital technology. In the anime, this is a clear reference to Heaven’s Gate, but in 2021, the whole episode no longer feels relevant. Why include it when you could have adapted one of more than a dozen other episodes?

Part of the answer is that Cowboy Bebop (2021) is structured in such a way that frames it for a sequel (rarely a good way to develop a series), so the creative team had to pick and choose now, while saving some episodes for later, should a second season be greenlit.

The other is simply that the team adapting this project lacks the skill and vision required to properly do so, to take a sophisticated, thoughtful, and entertaining series and adapt it into the same. It’s almost as if they’re overwhelmed by Shinichiro Watanabe’s vision (“this new genre itself”), and either out of fear or lack of competency, cannot add enough original elements that match the masterful strokes of the anime director. “Binary Two Step” has some fun with a “dream within a dream” type of scenario, for instance, but does relatively little else to set itself apart from its anime counterpart. Why not focus this particular episode instead on a current cultural event, something more relevant? How about weaving a more updated note on the danger of technology into the tapestry of the franchise? Wouldn’t that accomplish the twin goals of creating something new and honoring the original?

Cowboy Bebop (2021) succeeds in attention to detail, such as in adapting the church scene from “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” but where it lacks in the understanding and conveying the big picture. COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL in COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

It’s a shame, too, because there is strong talent involved here, especially in the cast. It’s a delight to see John Noble and Adrienne Barbeau make notable and significant appearances, while lesser known actors also excel in one or two-episode roles, like Lucy Currey, who plays Judy with energy and attitude, and particularly Lydia Peckham, who brings both an air of maturity and vulnerability to Katerina in episode one.

…the team adapting this project lacks the skill and vision required to properly do so, to take a sophisticated, thoughtful, and entertaining series and adapt it into the same.

In the main cast, Mustafa Shakir is a revelation (to me at least—fans of Marvel’s Luke Cage will already be familiar with him). His face, body language, and mannerisms convey better than the writing does that Jet is particularly and perpetually down on his luck, as if the universe is conspiring against him, all while Shakir gives his best vocal impersonation of Beau Billingslea. In a show that is desperate for comparisons to its source material, Shakir’s Jet may be the only improvement on its predecessor.

Meanwhile, Daniella Pineda radiates this big, loud energy through her portrayal of Faye. As John Cho has stated, “Daniella is just like Faye,” and I believe it—she emotes a believability in expressing every line with misplaced confidence that is just like her anime counterpart, and at times reveals a vulnerability as well, this despite a script that contains some insanely bad pieces of discourse (which she totally sells, by the way).

The show conveyed Faye’s innocence in a strange way rather than by the more age-focused concept from the series, but Pineda is so good that I had little complaint. COWBOY BEBOP (L to R) DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE in COWBOY BEBOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Thankfully for Pineda, though, she escapes most of the worst dialogue, reserved for scenes involving the love triangle between Spike, Vicious (Alex Hassell), and Julia (Elena Satine), the ingénue who comes between the former “brothers.” As the series drifts into neo-noir mode, you’ll hear classic lines like, “I have traveled across the entire solar system and never found anyone that makes me feel the way that you do.” I half expected that to be followed up with grievances about sand getting everywhere or Julia screaming, “Vicious, you’re breaking my heart!”

In a show that is desperate for comparisons to its source material, Shakir’s Jet may be the only improvement on its predecessor.

But I’d rather do with cringe-worthy romance than the hours of stale Syndicate world-building and Vicious’ associated origin story. Cowboy Bebop (2021) does a far deeper dive into Spike and Vicious’ past than its predecessor. The choice to lay everything bare could have been a good one, but because the scenario-building is rote (there is nothing new under the sun in the show’s extensive flashbacks), Spike comes out flat, doing John Cho no favors as he tries to inhabit a character Netflix describes as “impossibly cool,” one who should exhibit the cool and grittiness of a film noir protagonist and the modern pizazz of a vulnerable action hero, but instead falls somewhere below on both counts.

But it’s not just Spike who is dulled down—it’s the entire Syndicate in which he was and Vicious remains a part. Mostly gone are the triad and yakuza structure of this gang, except through superficial flourishes, replaced by a less interesting and oft-repeated mafia dynamic and structure. Vicious is presented as living and growing in this culture, motivated by jealousy and daddy issues. It’s unimpressive and all very soporific. And that might be the greatest sin of all in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop adaptation: It’s boring.

The thin, straggly Vicious hair looks awful and ridiculous on Alex Hassel’s cleft-chinned, tall features. COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Actually, check that. There’s a worse sin, and that’s Spike’s “real name,” Fearless. Yep, that’s what they call him all throughout the series, without as much as a smirk. Fearless. What a blunder, and what a precise example of how impossibly uncool the newly developed material is.

It’s this twin dynamic of poor writing and uninspired world-building that adds tedium to what should be an exciting tale. Each layer or characterization is worse than the last. I’ve barely even mentioned Julia. She’s presented as an abuse victim, a plot device that feels too commonplace, out of a made-for-TV movie, and almost offensive to the character.

…that might be the greatest sin of all in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop adaptation: It’s boring.

That said, Cowboy Bebop aficionados and others may want to tune in simply to see the occasional sequences which are well-constructed. I was particularly thrilled with one featuring Vicious and reminiscent of the “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” in Kill Bill. And the “Ballad of Fallen Angels” church scene also looks magnificent, even if the action falls a little flat.

The clarity of vision in some of these scenes makes me wonder how so many other components were missed. The writing feels like a first draft, and the final editing as if it wasn’t complete, with too little time spent on important details, like those that establish setting, for instance, which were at best indistinguishable (I frequently wondered what planet we were on).

This is another well-choreographed and splendidly shot scene, but suffers from novice SFX and writing seemingly inspired by Solo: A Star Wars Story. COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS and JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

The soundtrack, at least, not only remains intact, but is carried further by a substantial amount of original material composed by Yoko Kanno, who brilliantly composed the original music and reunited with her band, the Seatbelts, for the new score. Her work adds a sense of familiarity that at first is much welcomed, before it, too, feels like a superficial attempt to divert attention from the serious flaws in the series by cashing in on the original.

That assessment is a little harsh, but the the truth is harsher still, that perhaps the intentions were noble, but the follow-through mediocre. To use the casino setting from the first scene of the show as an analogy—Netflix is a high roller, but without enough skill to beat the house.

To use another one, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is not at all like it’s two leads. Despite how skilled and physical Spike and Jet are, they rarely get their man; they struggle, fight, and put their lives on the line, but the hunt very seldom goes as planned. On the occasion that things do work out, it’s because of their expertise, strength, determination, trust, and gumption. They earn every woolong they’re rewarded.

Netflix was rewarded not through any of such characteristics, but by the size of its pocketbook. It may have purchased the rights to adapt Cowboy Bebop, but it didn’t earn those rights by pulling together a team on equal footing to do the work, resulting in the latest, if not most egregious, example of a poorly adapted anime property.

But just like Faye is Faye, Vicious is Vicious, and Jet is Jet, Netflix is Netflix, and an inconsistent, fatuous, and forgettable final product is what we’ve now come to expect from them.

After all, it’s as they say (and can’t you just imagine Shinichiro Watanabe, who has distanced himself from the new series, speaking this very line?)—easy come, easy go.

Cowboy Bebop (2021) premieres on Netflix this Friday, November 19th.

Read more of our anime analysis and other content by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. And be sure to return to the blog on Wednesday, when we post a first impressions piece over episode one of Cowboy Bebop (2021), a collaborative article by a number of our writers developed after each watched only the first episode.



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