Review: ‘Cowboy Bebop’

Review of: Review: 'Cowboy Bebop'
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Martin Carr

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On November 18, 2021
Last modified:November 18, 2021


This adaptation of the anime classic is a sensory assault which trades on visual flair rather than dealing in character development.

Review: 'Cowboy Bebop'

Hajime Yatate is not one person but a multitude, who all work under the umbrella of Sunrise animation studios. They are responsible for titles including The Big O, Batman: The Animated Series, and Outlaw Star amongst others. However, possibly their most important contribution remains anime classic Cowboy Bebop. A title that is considered sacrosanct by an avid fanbase who believe it untouchable in adaptation terms. Something that Netflix apparently chose to ignore by venturing onto hallowed ground, giving their go-ahead, and taking a big ballsy bite of the anime apple.

This highly stylised bounty hunter fable brought to life by Christopher L. Yost and company defies description. It is a living breathing live-action anime, fuelled by insane visuals and narrative chicanes that come with a pulse but more than a few problems. Taking licence and inspiration from the original, this ragtag band of curveball creatives hit the ground running, melding bebop jazz and syncopated segues into almost every scene. John Cho drips cool as the eponymous Spike Speigel, while his cohort Jet Black, played with an edge of irony and understated comic chops by Mustafa Shakir, is the perfect foil as events head south.

Their intergalactic vessel of choice is all junkyard chic and bachelor pad bohemia, defined by some serious jazz vinyl and a thin thread vibe. These erstwhile optimists are always trading on pocket change and hustling for their next meal, whilst being outwitted by endless groups of disorganised oddballs. Gun totting environmental activists, pooch pumping high value targets and teenage daughters on the lamb are amongst those handing out a hard time.

Elsewhere, allies are in short supply often masquerading as fork tongued femme fatales, offering solace in the form of backhanded pleasantries. Chief amongst these is Faye Valentine, played with a relish which is almost unquenchable by Daniella Pineda. She comes in like a tornado, all frenetic energy and pitch black put downs, scorching the screen and leaving a big impression amongst this visual chaos.

With the coquettish chemistry she launches relentlessly at John Cho there is no grey area. Verbal tongue lashings and physical beatings are on the cards and this lady is not fussy about dishing out both. Ironically, amongst the gun fire, kidnappings, and double dealings which make up much of this narrative, she remains their strongest supporter.

Beyond that, Cowboy Bebop is more about the sensory experience rather than anything of depth. It plays like a space based film noir laced with adult undertones, that defies structure and laughs in the face of common sense. It screams cool and pays homage to more influences than there are hours in a day, yet somehow feels restricted. Coming at this blind, the show feels like it’s trying to get by on visuals alone.

Performances across the board are exaggerated as you would expect from such a highly stylised source, yet the actors never look entirely comfortable amongst the VFX and expansive soundstages. Alec Hassell is hamming it up in full force as big bad Vicious, while Jet Black and Spike saunter between encounters narrowly avoiding obliteration. Stone cold quips, dynamite art direction, and retro threads clash with a story that in the beginning at least, feels thin.

Much of the problem with Cowboy Bebop is lack of context. Audiences are dropped into this world with no point of reference, meaning that viewers are literally lost. Although the introductions are audacious, this method of blindsiding whilst simultaneously world building offers little room for error. Giving the impression in retrospect, that a working knowledge of this universe is essential if only in its creative assumptions.

Alex Garcia Lopex, who directs five of the ten episodes, comes equipped to tackle this however having worked on Daredevil, The Witcher, and The Punisher. That knowledge at least means that things feel slick if not entirely coherent. Scenes are stitched together with panache and the visual aesthetic of consummate cool is maintained throughout. Coupled with the production design of Grant Major and Gary MacKay, there is no faulting the visual flourishes or sense of breadth being achieved through set design.

Where things continue to fall short is in the story department, where formulaic structure and two-dimensional characterisation leaves a solid cast floundering. John Cho and company are left posturing without any apparent substance to back up their performances. That is not to say that Cowboy Bebop is particularly bad, but rather just routine after a couple of episodes. Visually it remains bold and brazen which might keep people watching, but then again anyone who wants more may end up looking elsewhere.   

Review: 'Cowboy Bebop'

This adaptation of the anime classic is a sensory assault which trades on visual flair rather than dealing in character development.