Cowboy Bebop review: A pale imitation of the original series

Netflix's live-action remake of the classic anime has its moments, but it'll probably just remind you how good the earlier version was.

COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) DANIELLA PINEDA as FAYE VALENTINE, JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL and MUSTAFA SHAKIR as JET BLACK on the set of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. NICOLA DOVE/NETFLIX © 2021
2.0 out of 5 star rating

There is an extraordinary sense of alchemy to the original 1998 anime series of Cowboy Bebop, directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. The opulence of its images, the fluidity of its animation, the seamless blending of science fiction, western and noir – all elevated by Yoko Kanno’s vibrant jazz and blues soundtrack. Few shows have come close to its command of style and mood.

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Pity then the Netflix remake, which has the unenviable task of rebottling Watanabe’s lightning – this time in live-action. It is, in parts, an admirable attempt, although generally amounts to nothing more than pale imitation. At best, it functions as affectionate homage; at worst, it struggles to escape the feeling that this is all just a big cosplay project that got way out of hand.

Set in the year 2071, in a future in which humanity has colonised the solar system, Cowboy Bebop follows the adventures of the laid-back bounty hunter Spike Spiegel (John Cho) and his partner Jet, a grumbling ex-cop with a metal arm, played by Mustafa Shakir. The remake retains the basic structure of the original. Each episode is set around a different bounty or problem – a bomber who dresses up as a teddy bear; a seemingly unkillable killer clown – while telling the grander, overarching story of Spike’s past (as a member of a crime syndicate) coming back to haunt him.

Developed by showrunner André Neme (co-writer of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and featuring scripts by Thor: Ragnarok writer Christopher Yost, it is a fairly uneven adaptation. The scripts are often tiresomely quippy (I hope you like compound swearing). The tight and sharp 20-minute stories of the original have been stretched to nearly an hour, which gives the episodes a slower, baggier feel. While the stories themselves shine when flirting with the source material’s weirder moments, they never quite embrace them in a way that feels imaginative or interesting. If anything, it just ends up reminding you of how good the anime is.

Unfortunately, some of the show’s least engaging moments also come from its original ideas, such as a tedious episode in which Spike is stuck in a VR timeloop, or flabby adaptations of stories like Jet’s search for the man who took his arm.

This is not to say that there’s no good stuff here. When the wise-cracking Faye Valentine, played by the charismatic Daniella Pineda, joins the crew in episode four (after an earlier cameo) she gives the show’s central dynamic a much-needed shake. The scenes in which she either clashes or bonds with Spike and Jet are some of the remake’s best. Another positive: the series ends with a relatively strong run of three final episodes, as Spike confronts his silver-haired-samurai-sword-wielding nemesis, Vicious (Alex Hassell, in a bad wig, just on the right side of cartoonishly deranged).

Cowboy Bebop main cast
Cowboy Bebop main cast
Netflix

But none of this really matters in the face of Cowboy Bebop’s most glaring issue: it is, in almost every way that matters for an adaptation of a space-western noir, jarringly, painfully flat. This is most obvious in the show’s largely uninspiring cinematography, especially in its use of lighting. Scenes set at night are shot with a textureless palette of blues and purples, while daytime exterior shots are dressed in the kind of drab, neutral tones that only accentuate the show’s unremarkable sets/locations, cosplay costuming and notably poor CGI. There is an unescapable feeling of cheapness that hangs over the whole thing – a feeling only amplified by the absurd dissonance of Yoko Kanno’s original score being played over such vapid, lifeless imagery. It’s like playing jazz at a funeral.

Beyond a few stylish touches (such as the camera spinning in time with a somersault kick), the direction and editing are also largely flat. The fight scenes in particular lack the fluency of the original. This is perhaps understandable – John Cho can hardly be expected to move with the grace of the Bruce Lee-esque Spike – but its over-reliance on quick cuts and rudimentary choreography robs the fights of flow and kineticism. (It says a lot that the remake’s best fight scene, in episode nine, is presented as one continuous shot).

More generally, a lack of rhythm permeates much of the Cowboy Bebop remake, including the lead performance. Cho looks the part but can often struggle to muster the charisma and screen presence needed to sell Spike as an effortlessly cool rogue. Although, as already mentioned, he’s hardly helped by the show’s limp direction and scripting. Much of the acting has a mannered, stilted quality to it, which at times can create the surreal spectacle of grown adults trying to act like they’re in a cartoon.

Cowboy Bebop
COWBOY BEPOP (L to R) ALEX HASSELL as VICIOUS and JOHN CHO as SPIKE SPIEGEL of COWBOY BEPOP Cr. GEOFFREY SHORT/NETFLIX © 2021

Perhaps this is simply the price you pay for dragging anime kicking and screaming into the harsh light of reality. After all, animation is a medium with its own visual language, and to a certain extent is blessed with an ability to tell a story without limits.

But that feels like a poor excuse for a remake whose flaws are to be found in execution rather than some fatalistic idea that a remake was always doomed to fail. This a show not only bereft of its own creative vision, but also woefully incapable of recapturing what made the original Cowboy Bebop so bold and exciting. It’s a tribute band that knows the songs, but has neither the ability nor stage presence to nail the hits.

Frankly, it’s perhaps the greatest advert for the art of animation you could hope for. But more than anything, it’s a stark illustration of the ineffable difference between trying to be cool, and simply being cool.

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Cowboy Bebop streams on Netflix from Friday 19th November. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.