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Cowboy Bebop review: A gorgeous but soulless spectacle, space cowboys

If there’s one thing any baker — or let’s face it, any baking show — can teach us, it’s that even the most straightforward recipe can take a disastrous turn if you leave out a key ingredient. Forget to mix in something important, and cookies turn into barely-edible crackers, and a cake becomes a sticky mess.

Along those lines, if you try to create a live-action version of a beloved, genre-blending anime, but forget to include any of its heart and humor, you end up with something like Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop series.

It’s a shame, too, because the live-action Cowboy Bebop is both beautiful and ambitious in equal measures, making its lack of substance and soul even more disappointing.

The cast of live-action Cowboy Bebop series walks down an alley.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Bohemian Rhapsody

Developed by Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol screenwriter André Nemec and written by Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarok), Cowboy Bebop is based on the acclaimed Japanese anime of the same name created and animated by studio Sunrise Inc. Like its animated source material, the Netflix series is set in the year 2071 and follows the adventures of a small group of bounty hunters — known as “cowboys” — as they attempt to hunt down wanted fugitives around the galaxy in their spaceship, the Bebop.

The series’ cast is led by John Cho (Star Trek, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle) as Spike Spiegel, a mysterious figure running from his bloody past; Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage) as Jet Black, an ex-cop and the captain of the Bebop; and Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as Faye Valentine, an amnesiac bounty hunter trying to uncover clues about her own, forgotten history. They’re joined by Alex Hassell (The Boys) as the brutal crime boss Vicious and Elena Satine (Strange Angel, Twin Peaks) as Julia, a femme fatale entwined in the lives of both Spike and Vicious.

Over the course of the series’ first, 10-episode season, the crew of the Bebop pursues one bounty after another while dealing with complications arising from their own troubled pasts — including former partners (both romantic and professional), deadly assassins, and devastating secrets that won’t stay hidden. While the live-action series takes plenty of visual and narrative cues from its animated counterpart early on, it diverges from the story arc of the source material as the season unfolds, taking the core characters in new directions and laying out the foundation for future stories set in the series’ universe.

John Cho as Spike Spiegel walks out of a church in a scene from Cowboy Bebop.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Jupiter Jazz

To its credit, Cowboy Bebop starts off on a good note — both literally and figuratively. The series smartly features a blend of musical genres that set the tone for each episode, in much the same way the anime that inspired it used a variety of jazz, heavy metal, and even country music to establish a unique atmosphere for each chapter of the Bebop crew’s adventures. It’s one of the signature elements of the series that inspired it, and the live-action adaptation does a nice job of channeling that same synergy between sight and sound throughout many episodes.

The first episode of the series also establishes a great visual foundation for Cowboy Bebop, dipping into the same,= bright color palette used by the anime for the characters and the world they inhabit. The universe of Cowboy Bebop doesn’t exist within the gray, hard-edged, neon-punctuated environment of most cyberpunk (and cyberpunk-adjacent) stories, and the costuming, set design, and color choices in the live-action series all reflect that unique aesthetic.

Cowboy Bebop (2021) new

Cowboy Bebop
tv-ma 1 Season
Genre Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Action & Adventure, Crime
Cast John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, Daniella Pineda
Created by André Nemec
Cowboy Bebop | Official Trailer | Netflix

Over the course of its first 10 episodes, Cowboy Bebop also delivers some impressive action sequences, with Cho looking every bit the action hero when given the opportunity. And even when the action is occurring off-screen or through heavy use of visual effects elements, the blend of color and music filling each scene makes them fun to watch.

Still, while Cowboy Bebop does a lot things right — or as right as we can hope for, given the difficulty of translating animation to the live-action world — it’s not quite enough to offset everything the series is lacking.

Alex Hassell as Vicious in a scene from Cowboy Bebop.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Asteroid Blues

It will be interesting to see how audiences unfamiliar with the source material will respond to the live-action Cowboy Bebop, which pinballs between slavishly imitating the anime and taking the characters in new directions.

When it’s doing the former, the series seems a bit too content to lift the flash and spectacle of the animated series while ignoring the nuance, emotional weight, and relatable humor the anime imbued in the characters and their stories. Spike, Faye, and the rest of the live-action series’ core characters are great at exchanging witty banter and striking cool poses, but are otherwise too empty to care about or connect with in any meaningful ways.

The characters’ lack of a well-defined, compelling presence in their own stories becomes even more conspicuous when Cowboy Bebop veers away from its source material.

As the live-action series distances itself from the anime and fans’ familiarity with the characters is not there to fall back on, it becomes painfully clear how underdeveloped both the crew of the Bebop and thei supporting cast really are. Separated from what we know about them already, Spike, Jett, Faye, and the rest of the characters feel like aimless drifters in their own narrative, swept from one plot point to the next, and connected in ways that never feel authentic or adequately defined.

And without the depth, humor, and heart that should define the characters’ relationships to each other and their goals, Cowboy Bebop feels surprisingly hollow as it whisks the Bebop’s crew from one mission to the next.

Alex Hassell and John Cho battle in a scene from Cowboy Bebop.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Sympathy for the Devil

Given how acclaimed the original Cowboy Bebop series is, Netflix’s live-action adaptation was always going to have a tough time living up to expectations for it.

Although it does manage to deliver many of the surface-level elements associated with its source material, the live-action Cowboy Bebop never manages to find the soul of the story that inspired it or do what’s necessary to create its own narrative and emotional core. And lacking that foundation, all of the gorgeous visual effects, colorful sets, and clever costuming and color choices just end up becoming fancy decoration over an otherwise hollow experience.

Even when it falls frustratingly short of what we want to see from it, Cowboy Bebop still shows plenty of potential. The first season’s conclusion hints at intriguing things to come, but the likelihood of seeing them will depend on whether the spectacle on the surface of the series is enough to make up for the emptiness at its core.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop series premieres November 19 on Netflix.

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Rick Marshall
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