Cowboy Bebop — Shinichiro Wantaname’s seminal anime — is a melody that Netflix’s new live-action adaptation from André Nemec knows well. This 2021 version sets out to remix the ‘90s classic with a story that both echoes and riffs on the original series. The new show’s reverence for its predecessor is palpable, and the cast’s passion for their roles is undeniable, but in its first season, Cowboy Bebop stumbles and struggles a bit to find its own internal sense of rhythm.
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop condenses a number of the pivotal moments from the anime into a languid, slick, stylised, and impeccably-scored 10 episodes revolving around the trio of bounty hunters living aboard the titular ship. Though life began very differently for sharpshooter Spike Spiegel (John Cho), former cop Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), and conwoman Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), wild twists of fate bring them together in a far-flung, near-future where the colonisation of space has drastically changed society in some ways, but left it quite the same in others. Space being the awfully-large place that it is, hunters like Spike, Jet, and Faye are able to make good livings rounding up the deadly criminals who various police districts throughout the galaxy can’t keep handcuffed. But as three particularly antisocial people, working together proves to be more challenging for the Bebop’s crew once they come together early in the season. After centering the tension and friction between its protagonists as one of its narrative power sources, Cowboy Bebop shifts into gear with explorations of their respective pasts with arcs that pull heavily from the anime.
The cool, collected aloofness Cho’s Spike leads with in the present belies the tortured, emotional personal history on Mars he’s running from throughout the series, the details of which will be privy to those familiar with the source material. To newcomers, Spike may be as opaque as he tries to be with Jet, who brings a sort of clear-minded level-headedness to the team; he can see right through many of the walls his longtime partner puts up to keep people at a distance. The shape of Spike and Jet’s camaraderie doesn’t properly come into focus until the pair first meet Faye — who has no memory of her life except for the last two years — because of how her frantic, chaotic energy upends the familiar everyday patter of their lives.
Though Cowboy Bebop’s an ensemble show with an overarching narrative, characters repeatedly venture off to do their own things throughout the season in order to give the story an opportunity to shift its focus and tone. The show’s noir elements are especially highlighted when the camera’s trained on Julia (Elena Satine), a heartbroken woman from Spike’s past who’s become entangled with Vicious (Alex Hassell), head of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. Of all the chances Cowboy Bebop takes on drastic deviations from the anime, Julia and Vicious’ story ends up paying off the most and stands out as an example of the adaptation improving on the original.
Like the anime, Netflix’s series borrows from a sampling of different cinematic and storytelling genres ranging from overwrought noirs to spaghetti westerns. Because the show vacillates between modes so sharply, and often multiple times within the same episode, it has a way of feeling like it’s always just a few beats out of sync with both its own plot and Yoko Kanno’s sumptuous soundtrack. More than a mere simple issue of pacing, Cowboy Bebop sometimes feels as if it’s lost track of its own metre in ways that don’t seem to be purposeful stylistic choices or at least ones that work in its favour. Quiet moments meant to cut through the clamor of the world are muddled by gazes that linger too long and pauses that feel overdue, whether between Spike and Jet, or Spike and Faye.
Cowboy Bebop’s interplanetary worldbuilding is actually one of its stronger suits, and the series showcases a number of locales that all speak to how the galaxy’s people and cultures have transformed as a result of easy travel between one planet and another. Cowboy Bebop’s strengths — like its costuming and set design — will catch your eye, but they stand out in ways that draw attention to fine details that need more tuning. While the almost Doctor Who-vian CGI space sequences inject a refreshing vibrance and action to the show, internal shots of ships all feel like static spaces that don’t feel like the interiors of metallic behemoths shooting through the void.
The best way to think of Cowboy Bebop’s hand-to-hand action sequences — the moments that fans are most likely to come at with a critical eye — are as tightly-choreographed but middlingly-executed dance numbers. There’s a poetry and story to them that reflects their participants’ headspaces, but that art is cut off at the knees by a combination of excessive editing and an overall energy that feels a step and a half lower than where “Cowboy Bebop” needs to be. Cowboy Bebop’s out-of-step-ness wanes whenever the series settles for a bit and really begins honing in on what’s motivating a particular character. Because all of them are hiding secrets from one another, though, it takes a considerable amount of time before the show really becomes comfortable in that character-exploring space.
Many who tune into Cowboy Bebop will mistake what it does intentionally for camp, something which can seldom be pulled off effectively when a creative team is actively trying for campiness. Rather, the series settles into its cruising altitude somewhere near a lighthearted cheesiness that grows on you with time.
In spite of its shagginess, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop does manage to find itself somewhere around this first season’s final three episodes, and the finale leaves its players in very different places, emotionally, that set up the potential for more promising installments down the line. Bumpy a ride as Cowboy Bebop is, it’s a fun one that pays off more than you expect it to — if you’re willing to stick it out to the very end.
Cowboy Bebop also stars Tamara Tunie, Mason Alexander Park, Ira Munn, Lucy Currey, Geoff Stults, Rachel House, Ann Truong, and Hoa Xuande. The show hits Netflix on November 19.
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