The Live-Action ‘Cowboy Bebop’ is Deeply Insignificant

Congratulations Netflix, the live-action Cowboy Bebop isn’t a complete disaster.

Some qualification is necessary: the bar for anime adaptations is laughably low. Hollywood has made a sadistic bloodsport of failing to recreate beloved Japanese properties. Dragon Ball Z, Ghost in the Shell, and Death Note are casualties of the industry’s unhealthy obsession. André Nemec, the showrunner for Netflix’s adaptation of the revered Cowboy Bebop, would have to be exceptionally deficient to produce something worse than any of those projects. Still, it is notable that his efforts aren’t an irredeemable failure (like Death Note).

That doesn’t mean that Cowboy Bebop 2021 is some landmark achievement or even particularly good.

John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda in Cowboy Bebop (Courtesy: Netflix)

Like the anime, the new Cowboy Bebop follows the adventures of a group of bounty hunters (known as “cowboys”) aboard the rinky-dink Bebop spaceship in the year 2171: former gangster Spike Speigel (John Cho), ex-cop and ship captain Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), and the amnesiac Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda). The series builds a season-long narrative around how Vicious (Alex Hassell), Spike’s cruel former best friend and fellow gangster, climbs the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate ranks with Julia (Elena Satine), the woman they both loved, by his side. It sets up the inevitable showdown between the two men, where Spike must confront the past he’s tried to escape.

As someone who didn’t hold the original as preciously as others (my best friend has sworn by the anime for at least two decades), I was curious to see what Nemec would do with the intellectual property. You can empathize with his no-win situation: stick too closely to the original and fans revolt; change too much, and fans revolt. Somehow, Nemec splits the difference between the two worst-case scenarios. His adaptation is worse than the original in every conceivable way, but his choices are so uninspiring, pointless, and fearful that getting upset is a waste of energy. He gives Jet an estranged family that doesn’t expand our understanding of him. He gives Spike a new name before he faked his death, Fearless, but it does nothing more than dumbly contrast with Vicious.

Alex Hassell and John Cho in Cowboy Bebop (Courtesy: Netflix)

The absolute bungling of Vicious and Julia’s characterizations is Cowboy Bebop’s most egregious crime. They are both ciphers in the anime, drifting in and out of the episodic structure to drive Spike into fits of self-sacrifice that contrast his lackadaisical attitude. Nemec could’ve explored what made Vicious so terrifying and Julia so alluring through his new narrative. What he does instead is morph Vicious into a stunningly pathetic victim of textbook toxic masculinity and rob Julia of whatever mystery the anime gave her by keeping her in the shadows. Even the final episode’s heel-turn manages to be reductive when it could’ve been daring or at least provocative.

Cowboy Bebop is actively disinterested in tapping into what made the original special. For me, the anime used its unique aesthetic blend of space punk and neo-noir to explore how deeply the past can influence the future and how ennui is a poor method of escape from what harmed us prior. Even when the anime’s plot took random detours that advanced nothing narratively, the fully realized characters kept us connected. The most compelling insight that the adaptation can muster is the power of “found family,” but it offers nothing new or interesting to say about it.

The cast of the animated Cowboy Bebop (Courtesy: Netflix)

Suppose you divorce Cowboy Bebop from its anime ties. What you have is a perfectly serviceable and unremarkable slice of sci-fi television, something you would watch on the weekend while folding laundry. And in some ways, that’s fine. There are some enjoyable moments across the ten episodes; the first episode opener is as good as the show gets. There is plenty of slick and bloody action and semi-decent CGI to distract you from your phone for at least half an episode’s runtime. The dialogue is terrible, but there are enough curse words and campy one-liners to make for a mid-tier Instagram caption. It can even be genuinely funny and charming in places, thanks mainly to John Cho’s performance. 

Cho is far and above the best part of the series. Whether or not his hair is fluffy enough or his frame lithe enough, he embodies Spike’s calm demeanor while injecting little bits of his comic timing that fit right in. He easily justifies Nemec’s decision to age up the character for him to play, imbuing Spike with a weary emotional maturity that only enhances the character. Cho proves once again that Hollywood’s inability (or refusal) to give him a substantive enough role in showcasing his talents is downright inexcusable. Daniella Pineda is also great as Faye, impressively navigating the outright terrible dialogue she’s given with her charisma.

John Cho in Cowboy Bebop (Courtesy: Netflix)

What Netflix wants from its Cowboy Bebop adaptation is the anime’s cultural cachet and built-in fanbase, without doing any work to make it a worthwhile endeavor. The pitch is relatively straightforward and shamelessly cynical: “relive your childhood with this faithful remake of one of anime’s greatest titles.” It’s a pitch that makes you wonder why Netflix didn’t just plop down a stack of money, as it did for Neon Genesis Evangelion, on the rights to the original instead of producing a costly remake. 

Funny enough, the anime landed on the streaming service a couple of months ago, presumably to build hype for its deformed, bloodless sibling. The original holds up exceedingly well, and given how readily available it is, the live-action version is even more insignificant and unnecessary than it already was.

But at least it isn’t a complete disaster.

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