A common criticism of theatrical adaptations of animated TV series is that they are mere "extended episodes". Audiences do not go into the theater wanting more of the same, they expect something bigger, better. Sometimes the desire is fulfilled (End of Evangelion, Tenchi Muyo in Love), more often it is not (Rurouni Kenshin, Dragonball Z). Then there's Cowboy Bebop. Watching
Cowboy Bebop is like hanging out with old friends, viewers watch not for the standard pulp-fiction plots but just to see what Spike and the crew are up to this week. You're guaranteed a lot of action, a laugh or two, and a real good time. It works so well, it leaves you wanting more....of the same. Knockin' on Heaven's Door is not bigger or better than the series it's based on. It's a mere "extended episode." And that's exactly as it should be.
One of the most anticipated anime movies of recent years, "Heaven's Door" will please veteran fans of Cowboy Bebop and newcomers alike. No startling revelations about Faye's past are revealed, and Vicious and Julia are brought up only in a passing reference. Taking place in-between episodes 22 and 23 of the TV series, the movie presents "just another case" for the Bebop crew, albeit with all the action and panache that made "just another case" so much fun on the show. There is some foreshadowing of events from the end of the TV series, but beyond that nothing that would go over the head of someone unfamiliar with what has gone before. This is a great movie for Bebop fans to show their uninitiated friends so they can finally see what all the fuss is about.
In typical Bebop style, the story is very pedestrian but very well told. Crazed bioterrorist Vincent feels he is a lost soul who has already "died", and that if he kills everyone else he might speed along Judgment Day. Spike, knowing what it feels like to "have died once", senses a kindred spirit and puts forth an extra effort to subdue him. He's aided by his usual crew of weirdos as well as a new character named Electra, who is after Vincent for reasons both professional and personal. Like the best episodes of the television series, "Heaven's Door" finds ample room for quiet, introspective moments and laugh-out-loud humor amidst various action setpeices, making for a thoroughly entertaining joyride of a movie.
The animation in Cowboy Bebop has always been of very high quality, so the animators had little to improve upon in bringing Bebop to the big screen. Still, they manage to outdo themselves in a few select scenes. Faye's Zipcraft and Spike's Swordfish maneuver thorough the Martian cityscapes with a complex grace, and Spike's final mano-a-mano bout with Vincent has a furious zest which surpasses the excellently-animated fights against Andy and Vicious in the television show.
The voice actors for the new characters are all capable, and of course the original cast is back for the movie. One of the unique things about Cowboy Bebop as far as American audiences are concerned is that the English cast is actually superior to the Japanese originals. People only familiar with the dubbed version will likely find Spike's voice too deep, Faye's too nasal, and Ed's doubly annoying. Columbia-Tristar has just recently announced it has snatched the license for this film out from under Bandai's nose; it would be in their interest to procure Bandai's vocal cast for Bebop as well.
Of course one can't talk about Cowboy Bebop without mentioning the music, and like the TV series the music in "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is as important an element as the story or characters. Yoko Kanno, the Mozart of Anime, returns to the Bebop universe with her usual Oscar-worthy compositions. The best piece is the retro-70s "What Planet is This?", and it accompanies the best scene in the film, a tour-de-force of animation in which Spike, in the Swordfish, takes on a squadron of military fighter planes ("I don't have time to play with you guys!" he casually remarks). Other highlights include the hard-rock "Pushing the Sky" and the blues-choir "Gotta Knock a Little Harder" which closes the film. In fact, the music of Cowboy Bebop has proven so popular that the release of the movie was accompanied by a two-disc soundtrack and even a concert of Bebop tunes performed by Kanno and her band, The Seat Belts.
The only problem to be found with this movie is that it has trouble fitting all the Bebop cast into the story. Faye is quickly captured and spends the bulk of the movie handcuffed on the floor. Ed and Ein are given a small bit of business in tracking down one of Vincent's henchmen in a short scene reminiscent of the "Mushroom Samba" episode of the TV series. Jet does little more than sit at home and worry about what everyone else is doing. Only Spike is crucial to the main thrust of the story, and at times it seems the movie could get along fine without even him. The true main characters of "Heaven's Door" are the villain, Vincent, and Electra, the mysterious agent who teams with Spike to catch him. It's not the first time the Bebop cast had relinquished center stage to guest stars, it just seems odd that they would do so in their first (and probably only) movie.
All in all, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door has the feeling of an encore performance by a talented and popular acting troupe. Bebop was a series that probably could have run for another full season, and Heaven's Door provides us one last visit with Spike and company. It's nice to see things haven't changed.