One could say the live-action Cowboy Bebop was doomed from the start. From its conception, the show had the almost impossible task of measuring up to source material as rich as it was timeless, a task it would inevitably fail. However, just because it doesn’t measure up to the original anime doesn’t mean this new adaptation doesn’t have some value. One could argue Shinichiro Watanabe’s original anime is so good, that any comparisons between the two would only highlight this new show’s failures while its successes are lost in the shuffle.
Set in a not too distant future, Cowboy Bebop is a world where the entire solar system has been circumvented and colonized, with humanity now having cities on the various planets and moons. The space between the planets has become the new frontier, a vacuum of lawlessness and anarchy filled with cutthroat criminals, desperate souls, and the crew of the Bebop. The Bebop is a small vessel owned by Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), a disgraced former cop turned bounty hunter. He is joined on the ship by Spike Spiegel (John Cho); a former hitman for the organized crime group the Syndicate, and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda); a woman with amnesia trying to uncover her past. While trying to get by, their adventures eventually put them at odds with Spike’s past, and his many demons.
Sessions and Bounties
Like the original show, Cowboy Bebop varies drastically in story and tone. Some episodes are lifted from Shinichiro Watanabe’s anime, such as Spike and Jet hunting down a pair of frantic drug smugglers in the pilot or their run-in with a sadistic childlike assassin later on. Other episodes are completely original, like Spike getting lost in a computer simulation or Faye’s strained relationship with a scammer pretending to be her mother. Some episodes are fun stand-alone adventures while others contribute more to the overall story, and it’s hard to say which the show does better.
One of the things that immediately impresses is its look. Cowboy Bebop has one of the richest, most fully realized worlds in the genre, and translating that to live-action was no easy task. Somehow, the makers of this new show have managed to do it, bringing viewers into a world that’s both bright and sinister. The production design here is to die for, and there is seldom a moment where the show isn’t breathtaking to look at.
Still, while some things in Cowboy Bebop translate to live-action very well, other aspects can’t help but feel a little off. The fight choreography and action scenes are creative and fun, but Spike’s fluid fighting style just isn’t as impressive in live-action. There’s also the issue with characters. The stylized world of animation allows for some characters to be more exaggerated than others, which can be used to charm or horrify. Two such characters that are carried over from the anime just don’t feel quite at home in this world, which has more to do with the limitations of live-action than the actors.
Changes in Story and Tone
It can be tempting to dismiss the characters in this new adaptation by simply pointing to how much better realized they were in the original, something I struggle not to do. Still, while a remake should try to capture the spirit of its source material, it should also be free to expand on or provide different perspectives on what came before. This show makes significant alterations to the story of Cowboy Bebop. Such alterations do manage to keep things fresh, but will undoubtedly spark much controversy amongst fans.
Perhaps the biggest change from the show is the introduction of a B plot involving series villain Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Spike’s lover Julia (Elena Satine). In the original show, we learned very little about either character. Vicious was a quietly intimidating monster that came across as more ethereal than human. Julia, while shrouded in mystery, was still brought to life with such dignity and agency that she became instantly memorable. Here, these two characters take up half the show, with Julia stuck in an unhappy marriage with Vicious. Vicious is portrayed as a loose cannon with clear mental problems, while Julia spends most of the show trying to escape both him and the Syndicate. Is it interesting? Sure. One of the better episodes is an extended flashback showing how the characters met in the Syndicate. Still, sometimes less is more, something the original show understood very well.
One of the things that made the original show so special was its ability to be lighthearted one moment and emotionally devastating the next. This show succeeds in the first part quite well. Moments like Jet paying more attention to his daughter’s recital than a bounty or the crew confronting a neurotic assassin unable to shoot a dog are genuinely funny. When it comes to the more dramatic moments, the show struggles to match the original’s power. It doesn’t always fail. The scene where Faye learns about her past from a VHS tape has the emotional weight of the original, but such moments are rare. While trying to be dramatic, often this new adaptation will descend to melodrama, favoring the bombastic over the subtle.
Three Lost Souls
Despite its flaws, there are areas where the show works quite well. The three lead characters are such an area. John Cho perfectly captures Spike’s nihilistic and oddly playful outlook on life, and is absolutely one of the best parts of this series. Shakir’s family man version of Jet is very different from the original, but he still follows a strict code of ethics that makes him a moral compass for the rest of the characters. Pineda’s Faye is more outwardly rambunctious than her counterpart, but still offers glimpses of Faye’s underlying sadness that are enough to keep the audience invested.
The interplay between these three is where this show shines. Scenes of Faye first meeting the group while arguing about a bounty or Jet rehearsing a plan while Spike and Faye grow increasingly bored are highly entertaining. It’s also fascinating when the roles of the group start to break down. Sometimes Jet becomes so focused on his bottom line that he forgets his code and puts the crew at risk. The normally nihilistic Spike shows the ability to think beyond himself to the point of volunteering his life for someone else. Faye, who is usually focused on her journey, is willing to call Jet out when he betrays the very ideals she once dismissed. Their chemistry is genuinely fun and fascinating and it’s a shame their work is getting lost amidst other, more legitimate criticisms of the show.
See You, Space Cowboy
There was no way this live-action version would ever measure up to the anime, which is not only one of the best anime ever made, but one of the best science fiction stories in history. What this new show feels like is a big-budget fan film. It’s made with a clear reverence for the anime even if it doesn’t always understand what made it great. I personally found this to be an above-average space western that serves as an interesting companion piece to the original. When it comes to forging its own identity, that’s where its weaknesses show. It’s just fine. The question is whether fine is good enough.
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