Cowboy Bebop

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John Cho in Cowboy Bebop.
John Cho in Cowboy Bebop.
Photo: Kristy Griffin/Netflix

SHOW:

Cowboy Bebop

WHERE TO WATCH:

Netflix

OUR RATING:

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Long on style and perpetually short on cash, bounty hunters Spike, Jet and Faye trawl the solar system looking for jobs. But can they outrun Spike's past?

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Whenever Netflix announces a new adaptation of a beloved franchise, there's always an expected upheaval from its fanbase about how nothing new could ever improve on the original. I have also fallen into that trap, and the call for fresh, original content is worthy of an article all on its own. But for this one, we'll dive specifically into anime live-action adaptations, and its newest victim is one of the most iconic and genre-defining ones of them all - the late 90s classic Cowboy Bebop.

It was heralded for its bold story directions and blending of genres - bounty hunters called 'cowboys' roaming the Wild West of space searching for bad guys and poor suckers that pissed off the rich or crime syndicates. It had violence, wit and romance - and cemented itself as a cult classic. Then Netflix came in and messed it all up - or that's the general consensus on the internet. But instead of comparing it to its original, the new Cowboy Bebop infuses a modern ethos into a show that's more than 20 years old, with a main cast you can't help but fall in love with and a jolly experience that provides fun weekend entertainment.

But first, I shall confess something heinous - I have never actually seen the anime. I was planning to watch it before seeing the live-action but as Tank! started playing in the intro, I switched it off, suddenly haunted by the anger of watching the live-action Death Note and being a long-time fan of that anime. So I decided not to choose violence that day and instead opted to enjoy the new version for what it is, fresh and wide-eyed.

So this review is for those non-anime-fans.

If you don't know yet, Cowboy Bebop is centred around Spike Spiegel, a cowboy with a shady past that runs around the galaxy with ex-cop Jet Black - a man more metal than human who only wants to give his daughter a good life. On the job, they meet Faye Valentine, another cowboy with an unknown past that likes to say 'nutbuckets' a lot. Unfortunately, Spike's past doesn't want to stay buried, and everyone gets pulled into the mayhem.

There are quite a few departures from the original storyline, but I liked how it's adapted to modern storytelling, especially considering how women in anime are sometimes portrayed. Jumping from bounty to bounty, the writers mostly ran a cohesive thread throughout, evolving the characters' relationships with each other and introducing some enjoyable side characters that helped flesh out a vibrant yet chaotic universe. While there were some great sequences of banter, there were more than a few landmines that could really throw you out of the story, wondering if they were just lazy or trying to squeeze in elements of the original as fan service haphazardly. Faye having a stroke while saying 'the dog is shooting movies from its eyes' was one of the few bad ones, alongside the final scene where they introduce a caffeinated toddler with red hair screaming at the screen that made me want to switch off instantly. 

The Syndicate storyline - where we're introduced to Spike's former best friend and lost love - also had many lacklustre moments, including a villain that looked permanently constipated whenever he wasn't screaming at someone or trying to kill everyone. Alex Hassel did not manage to toe that fine line between quiet malevolence and primal rage - he just looked like a goat that needed the toilet badly. Julia was also another unconvincing story arc - from a caged bird to plotting deaths - although I appreciate that she had some agency outside of just being a damsel in distress, waiting for Spike to save her.

Despite its flaws, its biggest wins were its main cast - John Cho as Spike, Mustafa Shakir as Jet and Daniella Pineda as Faye. The non-romantic chemistry between them all was pure delight, and you could really feel the love between them. Casting Cho probably received the most flack, primarily for his age, but it ended up being a perfect choice for a debonair. That man could probably charm the pants off anyone, and his comedic timing alongside Shakir's were a well-orchestrated dance of banter. While Jet might have been a bit of a stereotypical grumpy ex-cop with a heart of gold, Shakir made you feel for him and fall in love - especially when he's scolding Spike.

I agree with the showrunner when he defended his decision to go with older actors compared to the original - it provided them with more gravitas, and you had more belief in their lived experiences and their reactions to the world around them. Especially Pineda as Faye - her character is best described as vicious fun, with a hint of vulnerability that she desperately tries to hide behind her snarkiness. While her script felt a bit shaky at times, Pineda moved past them with finesse and quickly made you forget about it with a nutbucket zinger.

The new Cowboy Bebop is a fun show for the non-fans, harking to the days of Firefly and space operas that will delight sci-fi fans. The stylistic choices - from costumes to computer graphics - are also a visual pleasure with a 70s aesthetic set in the Wild West and 60s science fiction, similar to the anime's designs. Despite its plot holes, incredulous villain, moments of bad writing and a weak ending only created to set up season two, Cowboy Bebop was a banger of a show, even if it's just because of its banging main cast.

But don't fret; I will be watching the original now and will join in on the rage soon enough.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: (Warning: This trailer contain strong language)

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