Reviewby Steve Jones,
In the wake of disaster in the not too distant future, humankind has resettled itself into various space colonies scattered across the solar system. However, instead of new horizons, this cosmic pioneering age has only brought about strife, inequality, and the renaissance of good old-fashioned bounty hunting. Aboard their dilapidated space dinghy, Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine track down criminals in a never-ending struggle to keep food on their table and their hands off each other's throats. However, when Spike's criminal past catches up to him, it threatens to tear apart their partnership and reshuffle the balance of power governing the colonies.
I've been around long enough to remember mockups of Keanu Reeves sporting poofy green hair pasted on top of his head. Since Cowboy Bebop's explosion in popularity in the early aughts, an eventual American adaptation has seemed like an inevitability. And it makes sense. It's the anime most frequently touted for its supposed lack of anime signifiers. It's the anime you recommend to your friend who doesn't watch anime. Why shouldn't it work in live action? Now, 20 years after Adult Swim first aired Cowboy Bebop, Netflix's long-awaited and binge-ready version of these space-faring misadventures turns that rhetorical question into a painfully real one, and the answer is fraught with complications. In short, however, Netflix's Cowboy Bebop is a baffling disaster.
Before I go any further, I have to clarify that I'm a huge fan of the anime. Over the years, it has grown easy to contort the show's reputation as a gateway anime into a snobbish disdain for it. But having just rewatched all 26 episodes, I can confirm that it holds up as an enduring and singular work from a group of artisans at the top of their game. It's also, consequently, impossible for me to divorce my thoughts on new Cowboy Bebop from old Cowboy Bebop. If you're going to blame anyone for my obvious bias, I only ask that you blame the adaptation itself, which insists on revisiting and recreating iconic scenes and sessions from the original. Bebop's world is plenty big enough to support new stories, but the Netflix series refuses to carve out its own identity. The marketing has only exacerbated this issue, wielding many side-by-side comparisons to highlight the “faithfulness” of the new version. This show, like so many reboots and sequels in this modern age, has no problem weaponizing our collective nostalgia, so I have no problem approaching it on those terms. And considering how beloved Cowboy Bebop is, I suspect I won't be alone in this approach.
It's difficult to distill what Netflix's Bebop does wrong into succinct terms. Nearly every episode makes a number of head-scratching decisions and tweaks to the original, and it's a tempting but futile exercise to wade through all of them. My bigger concerns are the recurring and endemic choices that reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the source. If something was cool in the original, you can expect the adaptation to make it feel lamer. If something complex or understated, you can expect the adaptation to flatten its meaning. Cowboy Bebop drew from the language of space operas, westerns, wuxia, film noir, the French New Wave, jazz, horror, comic books, and beyond. It borrowed and remixed symbols and signifiers from a huge swathe of 20th century art. It emulated geniuses and played with pop culture icons. It built its characters, themes, and style on decades of scaffolding. Netflix Bebop, on the other hand, barely peeks beyond the soft, sanded-down edges of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its ilk. When it's not straight-up incompetent, it's dull, safe, and sterile—words that should be anathema to “the work, which becomes a new genre itself.”
The characters are the obvious place to start when assessing the new show's identity, and of the main cast, Spike and Jet end up faring the best. There are moments when John Cho and Mustafa Shakir capture the spark of these bounty hunters' shared camaraderie, whether it's through their mutual struggles or through dumb conversations about bidets. Shakir especially delivers the best performance out of anyone in the show. He grasps and juggles all the layers to Jet: the reluctant dad figure, the gentle bonsai-lover, the jaded ex-cop, and so on. It kind of sucks, though, that they made Jet into a real dad; it does his character no favors, and his daughter exists solely so someone other than Faye can be kidnapped in the finale. Cho, meanwhile, does fine, but he doesn't quite nail Spike's balance with the deftness that Shakir brings to Jet. Spike tends to feel a little too goofy or a little too much of an asshole, losing some of the laidback swagger quintessential to the character. I think that's less Cho's fault, though, and more the way live-action Spike is written. He's not exactly the deepest character in the anime, but he's a bundle of tropes in careful harmony, and the writers here don't quite find the same happy medium.
Faye will prove to be the biggest inflection point for audience opinions, if she isn't already. She's the main character with the most blatant changes made to her personality, and if I may be frank, I hate pretty much all of them. Anime Faye, like Spike and Jet, is a complicated figure. Haunted by her lack of a past, awoken by scammers, and thrown into an unfamiliar future, she wields sex appeal and violence with exacting precision to survive in the seedy slums of Bebop's dystopic space society. Also like Spike and Jet, she's a goof and a screwup with a vulnerable heart, and the anime utilizes her varying facets and facades where they're appropriate. Her arc is probably my favorite part of the anime's running narrative, especially in the melancholic but ultimately hopeful way it resolves her quest for an identity.
In adapting Faye for live-action, however, the showrunners seem to have tunnel-visioned on her impractical outfit and tendency to get put into handcuffs—room for improvement, to be sure, but not her defining features. Netflix Faye feels like a kneejerk reaction against a shallow and imaginary version of the original character, and in reinventing her, the writers throw out the ways in which she was consistent with show's themes and influences. In place of her more reserved qualities, she quips constantly, mugs for the camera, and repeats jokes and quirky swear words well past the limits of their amusement. While this cloying Whedon-style dialogue plagues the whole show, Faye's infection is the direst. Anime Faye was cool, sultry, and not above eating dog food for sustenance. Netflix Faye is overbearing and obnoxious, undermining any potential nuance in her personality with her cookie-cutter “girl power” persona. It's not at all the fault of Daniella Pineda, who plays the character with plenty of gusto. The writing just totally whiffs it when it comes to anything that made Faye complex or likable.
Faye's problems also stem from a sorely misguided attempt to smooth Bebop's rough edges. Despite showing more bare butts and boobs, the live-action is way more immature than the original, and much worse in terms of how it treats sexuality. Any gesture towards sex is played like a joke. When Spike and Jet interview a dominatrix, she has a thick German accent and mentions bukkake. It's like something out of an intolerable teen comedy. Meanwhile, when Faye hooks up with a female mechanic, it should be a cool, empowering, yet vulnerable moment, but it's framed with such sterility. They have an entire conversation in bed together with at least a foot of space separating them, like they're leaving room for the Holy Spirit. And Gren is played by nonbinary actor Mason Alexander Park this time, which rules, but their character is shoved to the sidelines, completely robbed of the tragedy, gravitas, and importance they had in the “Jupiter Jazz” arc. It's difficult to call this a representation win when the character in question is so hollowed out.
And don't even get me started on Woodcock.
The episode lengths don't do Netflix Bebop any favors either. One thing that jumped out to me when I rewatched the anime is how tight its writing is. Almost every episode whips by, ensuring that even the lesser stories only stick around for 20 minutes. The live-action balloons its episodes to double that length on average, with extra banter and additional storylines making up the difference. The writing, however, just isn't compelling or charming enough to sustain this bloat. Even worse, it tends to undermine the original plots' strengths, which often went hand-in-hand with their brevity. Mad Pierrot's episode suffers the most. Weird things the anime took for granted are explained to needless degrees. For example, instead of letting Pierrot show up out of the blue in a creepy clown outfit, the live-action devotes a full minute to him finding the costume as he sings a Blade Runner quotation in French for absolutely no reason. Furthermore, Pierrot is now a hitman specifically hired to kill Spike instead of a chance encounter that spirals into a thematic confrontation between two trained and broken assassins. Oh, and lest I forget, Ein also just so happens to come from the same secret lab as him. It's lazy writing, and frankly, it's disrespectful to the audience to keep tying things back to the central plot. Cowboy Bebop's soul can only sing when it's allowed to wander and have wacky episode-long tangents about shrooms or expired space lobster. This version of the show doesn't know how to have that kind of fun.
Instead, Vicious and Julia's expanded storyline makes up the bulk of Netflix Bebop's additional runtime. And out of all the adaptation's stumbles, I think rewriting these two characters is the most important smoking gun, because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Cowboy Bebop's stylistic and thematic aspirations. In the anime, Vicious and Julia aren't even characters. They're shadows from Spike's previous life—the violence he tried to run away from, the idealism he can no longer believe in, and the collective immutable past that tethers him far from a happy future. Jet, Faye, and even Ed all find some manner of closure that spurs them past the bounds of Bebop. Spike, on the other hand, is the only thing that holds Spike back from doing the same. Vicious and Julia are just symbols of that; they're outlines colored in by a long history of character tropes from the crime and noir films that these sections of Bebop conspicuously emulate. The anime trusts the audience to be media-literate enough to fill in the blanks themselves. These allusions allow Vicious and Julia to be greater than the sum of their parts. If you rip them out of that context, they just don't work.
Vicious and Julia in the live action are a total clown show. In good and bad ways! Vicious bears no resemblance to his anime counterpart outside of his role in the Syndicate and his hilariously bad wig. He's hammy, oafish, and about as menacing as a >:) emoticon. He's also my favorite part of the show. Alex Hassell takes the character, runs with it, jumps into the ocean, and swims to the next continent. He chews so much scenery that I'm surprised none of the sets collapsed. Every muscle in his face gives 120% to every scene, as if Hassell was the only actor on set who tried (and, in my opinion, succeeded) to live up to the exaggerations afforded by the show's animation roots. That is to say, Vicious may have been rewritten into a laughable caricature, but at least he's fun as hell to watch. And considering how dour the rest of the Syndicate storyline is, I'm even more grateful for his constant application of camp.
Julia is a different story. Through twisting around the details of her relationships with Spike and Vicious, the show attempts to turn her narrative into one of empowerment. The result, however, is a colossal misfire. First off, she's married to Vicious in this version, which is funny to consider in itself (just try to picture Vicious at a wedding), but it also turns her into even more of a caged bird than she was originally. All she does in this season is try to wriggle out from under Vicious' control by playing a half-cooked Lady Macbeth behind the scenes. These machinations, by the way, all fail, and it's only by dumb luck (and dumb writing) that she escapes in the finale. Her girlbossification is also perhaps the worst note her arc could have ended on. At least in the anime, Julia managed to escape the Syndicate. By choosing to lead it, this Julia only entrenches herself further in a cycle of abuse and violence. This should be a tragedy, but it's framed like a triumph. I genuinely can't believe how badly they screwed this up.
Ironically, however, the flashback episode stands out as the most successful one, and it's probably because it has the least to do with Cowboy Bebop. It's still not good, mind you. The uninspired sets, tryhard dialogue, needless Dutch angles, awful editing, poor lighting, poorer wigs, and lazy music cues would hold the entire series back whether or not it had anything to do with Bebop. But at least here we can see the shadow of something with its own identity. Perhaps I'd be more charmed by its ugly sense of kitsch if it weren't tied so inexorably to an anime that wielded its aesthetic with the precision of an Olympic fencer. Perhaps even the best possible version of a live-action Cowboy Bebop would still be hurt by that comparison. I mean, I'm writing for this website because I like anime, not because I like Americanized meatspace adaptations of anime. But I'm also quite sure that what we got here is not remotely close to its best possible version.
I think Netflix Bebop's lack of soul is most apparent in its soundtrack. On one hand, it's the best part; the original pieces are timeless, and Yoko Kanno's new additions are worthy, if not quite up to par with her older compositions. On the other hand, the soundtrack is applied to the show with little consideration for mood, tempo, or runtime. The anime tended to have one or two pieces that “defined” a given session, but the live-action will sometimes jump between three or four in a single scene, ending them on awkward cuts and almost never pacing the scene to match the music. Kanno's new compositions suffer the most from this lack of care—in fact, it's difficult to imagine the original Bebop soundtrack becoming such a classic if this was the version of the show we saw first. The music is the one thing that should've been a slam dunk, yet they didn't even graze the hoop.
When I think back on this version of Cowboy Bebop, I'm going to think about the scene where Faye convinces Spike and Jet to abandon Ein. They leave him on a pier, blast off, and never return for him. They never even mention him again. He only shows up with Ed during the cliffhanger (the one bright spot in an otherwise hilariously misguided scene). The Bebop crew I know would never forget about Ein like that. They might be greedy losers constantly at each other's throats, but they still have hearts. I don't know who these other people named Spike, Jet, and Faye are. All I know is that I don't want to spend any more time with them, and I don't recommend you do either.
Overall : D
Story : F
Art : D
Music : B-
+ Bebop crew is cast well, Vicious is delightfully campy, it sorta tries to do its own thing
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