It’s easy to understand why Netflix felt it might be able to pull off a live-action “Cowboy Bebop,” just as it’s easy to understand why it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.
On the one hand, Shinichirō Watanabe’s epochal 1998 anime series just begs to be remixed, inverted, and maybe even chopped and screwed. An impossibly cool retro-futuristic western space-noir that blasted hyperspace gateways between its various genres with all the exuberance of Yoko Kanno’s freeform jazz soundtrack — and forever galvanized a more global audience for its entire medium along the way — Watanabe’s stir-fry serial about a motley crew of interstellar bounty hunters doesn’t only endure as a masterpiece of pop art mish-mash, the original “Cowboy Bebop” also lingers with fans as a bittersweet ode to the mad scramble of their own existence.
Watanabe took a wild slew of disparate elements and harmonized them all together into a wabi-sabi cartoon saga about the beautiful dissonance of being alive; his show introduced a ship full of mangy orphans and runaways, most of whom were hopelessly tethered to the same memories they were so desperate to piece together or leave behind, and listened along for the length of a dream as these unlikely session partners made some unforgettable music together. Whether paying homage to John Woo in a massive shootout on Mars or sifting through the ruins of Earth for the last Betamax player in the universe (so that amnesiac Faye Valentine might be able to watch a tape containing footage of her former self), “Cowboy Bebop” created such an ephemerally special future because it knew in its bones that people are always responding to their pasts. Even in the outer reaches of Jupiter’s moons, we bring ourselves with us wherever we go. To quote the end scrawl from the final episode: “You gotta carry this weight…”
The live-action version of “Cowboy Bebop” exists for the same reason that so many other pieces of undead IP have been dug up and Frankensteined back to life in the streaming age, but few shows are more intrinsically sympathetic to the difficulties of letting sleeping dogs lie. From a certain perspective, you could even make the case that even the worst attempt to revisit “Cowboy Bebop” would honor the spirit of Watanabe’s series better than leaving it alone ever could.
At the same time, however, “Cowboy Bebop” was also haunted by the fact that the past is full of lost things people can never get back (its story takes place in 2071, 49 years after an Astral Gate explosion cut history in half, rendered Earth almost uninhabitable, and scattered humanity across the cosmos). It found something immensely sad in how its characters were lured back toward their buried trauma, often at the direct expense of the found family that had shown them a way forward. They were almost powerless to fight that feeling — everyone has to snap out of their dreams at some point — but Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” doesn’t have the same excuse.
This new show is the product of a culture that exhumes yesterday because it’s run out of fresh ideas for tomorrow, and its vision of the future is so sterile and uninspired that it often feels like nothing more than a cheap vision of the waking life that everyone in Watanabe’s original was trying so hard to sleep off.
To a certain extent, it seems that showrunner André Nemec and screenwriter Christopher Yost recognized the devil’s bargain of returning to “Bebop.” Adapting one of anime’s holiest cows is something of a fool’s errand — just ask the 319 directors who’ve tried to remake “Akira,” or the unfortunate souls who actually managed to shoot live-action versions of properties like “Death Note” and “Dragon Ball Z” — and in true “Bebop” fashion these guys may simply have loved the idea too much to let it go. After all, the Bebop crew had a knack for rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat, even if they usually squandered their rewards before they could spend them.
It’s possible that Nemec and Yost also self-doubtingly shared the internet’s skepticism that the writers of “Max Steel” and 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” could re-capture lightning in a bottle (though the decision to split these episodes between directors of “Daredevil” and “Gilmore Girls” suggests more of a doubling down), but the reality is that Watanabe’s series should never have worked so well in the first place.
And so rather than re-trace the original or risk telling brand-new stories in the show’s beloved sandbox, Nemec and Yost have wisely split the difference. Their adaptation recognizes the sacred nature of its source material by acting as more of a gospel to the holy book of Bebop than anything else; it’s the same board you might know and love, the pieces have just been moved around a little. For example, Faye no longer waits until the third episode to make her introduction, as she and Spike now cross paths during their first-episode pursuits of a rogue mafioso.
Likewise, the exhilarating air chase that capped off the anime’s pilot has been largely replaced by a nighttime shootout in a parking lot, a scene so utterly lifeless it’ll leave you begging for more of the consumer-grade CG this show busts out during the rare moments when it remembers that it’s set in outer space. Alas the $25 that Netflix apparently budgeted for each of the show’s 10 episodes isn’t enough to make a convincing interstellar epic. And that’s really the whole ballgame, as the original “Cowboy Bebop” cooked up one of modern fiction’s most vivid, intoxicating, and transportive visions of the near-future by sublimating style into substance; by creating a world in which the tension between conflicting tropes and archetypes might crystallize our search for meaning amid the existential chaos of the universe, and make it possible to find a mythic weight in the paper-thin rivalry between a fluffy-haired ex-gangster and an edgelord named “Vicious.” Watanabe’s anime wasn’t cool because it was good, it was good because it was cool.
Like so many of the great Westerns did for the past, “Cowboy Bebop” left you itching to visit its floppy-disk vision of the future, even if a trip there promised certain death. The azure oceans of Mars. The patches of land that floated above Venus and rained flowers below. The terraformed planets that contained Hong Kong-inspired megalopolises inside of glass domes like the world’s seediest wedding cakes. Even the rundown New Tijuana asteroid colony seemed more exciting than any place on Earth. In the third episode of the Netflix show, by contrast, our heroes visit a red-light district where a flashing neon sign reads “PORN” and the Space Needle has been composited into the background for texture.
It was always going to be a challenge to infuse a live-action “Bebop” with the same magical atmosphere, but the Netflix version of the show falls so far short of creating that mood — or any sustained sense of place whatsoever — that it’s hard to imagine how it got past the concept phase. For Watanabe, tone was an instrument that he played with the virtuosity of a first chair violinist. For Nemec, it’s a single note stretched between planets, every episode dulled by the same “Xena”-level production design and one-size-fits-all ambivalence that even a climactic riff on the anime’s most iconic episode (“Ballad of Fallen Angels”) can’t help but swan dive into a safety net of lame jokes and bad soap opera. Considering that fans could probably retrace the original show with their eyes closed, it’s unforgivable that these episodes hardly offer a single memorable image of their own.
“Bebop” diehards will be appalled, while newbies will struggle to imagine why people have been making such a big deal about the anime for the last 20 years. The New Zealand sets are so crummy, the cinematography so flat and colorless, and the ambiance so non-existent that it would be hard to remember this is supposed to be “Cowboy Bebop” at all if not for the show’s three main characters (it pains me to say that even Kanno’s generic contributions to this adaptation sound like reheated leftovers, and do little to give the Netflix series any life of its own).
The casting of Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is a saving grace that ranges from the smart to the divine. The actors are often the only thing that pulls these episodes back from the brink of catastrophe, even if they can’t do much about the wretched dialogue that keeps the show dangling over the edge. First and foremost, John Cho is an inspired Spike Spiegel; no one could ever hope to embody a character drawn to be equal parts Clint Eastwood, Elliott Gould, and Bruce Lee, but Cho’s breezy and humanizing performance nails the disaffected cool of a death-obsessed bounty hunter in a blue leisure suit.
If he can’t be as self-actualized as Spike was in the anime, Cho still hints at shifting layers of regret and spiritual purpose even when he’s forced to pretend there’s nothing under the surface. In a show that clumsily deploys Joss Whedon levels of sarcasm to fill in the “Le Samouraï”-like silences that punctured the original, Cho makes those quips feel like the defense mechanisms they are. It doesn’t hurt that he can hold his own in a fight, devastating knee injury and all. Netflix’s “Bebop” is very short on memorable action setpieces (the ostensibly explosive “Pierrot le Fou” episode is so botched that fans will be doing its villain’s demented cackle from their couch), but Cho exudes a calm during even the most intense battles, and in the second episode even gives Tom Cruise a run for his money during the messiest bathroom brawl this side of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”
It’s Mustafa Shakir, however, who emerges as the clear MVP. The “Luke Cage” alum is both an uncanny personification of the level-headed and fabulously named ex-cop Jet Black (aka “The Black Dog,” whose bark is worse than his bite), and a well-realized growl of a man in his own right. Even without a bonsai-pruning scene to hammer the point home, Shakir’s lovable performance radiates the serenity now energy of a workaday stiff who just wants to survive this craziness without killing anyone he doesn’t have to. Shakir’s turn is so complete that the decision to saddle Jet with a young daughter he’s never home to see feels like overkill, even though it helps the show’s seventh and best episode (“Galileo Hustle”) build into a broader comic reflection on the space-time distance between parents and their kids.
Typical of this series’ abject inability to accommodate genre, let alone reckon with the heightened realities that come with it, Jet’s daughter is also roped into a “save the cat” scenario that epitomizes the extent to which “Cowboy Bebop” has been denatured for its Netflix adaptation. Of course, it’s the pre-existing characters who bear the brunt of that. Daniella Pineda brings admirable verve to the role of Faye Valentine, the mysterious and volatile one-woman wrecking crew who brings the Bebop together in spite of everything; her performance brings an anime-proportioned femme fatale down to human measurements without losing any of her spark, or the even more crucial sense that Faye is a go-it-alone girl interrupted. But Nemec and Yost aren’t sure how to elaborate on someone previously defined by her absent sense of self, and so Faye is often reduced to a plucky space-age girlboss who calls Spike a “dickwad” and takes out a room full of goons while shouting “Welcome to the ouch, motherfuckers!” This is not the retro-futurism liberals want.
The issue of how to expand on the anime’s characters with hours of time and not a second’s worth of style inevitably weighs heaviest upon Spike’s old syndicate partner Vicious, who was never more than an adjective in the original series. Played here by Alex Hassell, a brilliant Shakespearian actor whose Ross is among the many highlights of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Vicious is stretched into a British-accented big bad with enough backstory to fill out an entire Greek tragedy. Hassell can’t be blamed for embracing the cartoonish melodrama of it all — going full “Eddie Redmayne in ‘Jupiter Ascending’” might be the only way for such a gifted actor to keep themselves engaged across 10 hours of snively bloodletting and hackneyed villainy — but Vicious’ sadism is spread far too thin to take him seriously as a real person, and he lacks even a fraction of the menace his anime counterpart achieved through omission.
The most consistent element across these 10 episodes might be how much they fumble the ball whenever trying to mine new depth from the aspects that Watanabe intentionally left superficial. Julia (Elena Satine), the blonde who haunts Spike’s dreams, is very different in ways that misapprehend her meaning to this story, while much of the overarching drama surrounding Spike’s past is bafflingly placed on the idea that Jet doesn’t know about his previous life as a hitman for the Red Dragon crime syndicate. The show fails to makes a good case why Jet would care. Because he’s an ex-cop? So what. Spike is the only reliable partner the guy has left, and vice-versa. Besides, everyone on the Bebop is running away from something. That’s how they all ran into each other, and why they’re able to live at the same pace.
Underneath its badass façade, “Cowboy Bebop” has always been a wistful story about people who can’t shake free of their own pasts, especially in the embrace of a found family that doesn’t give a damn about who they used to be — only who’s going to pay for their next meal. Even supporting characters like Gren (re-imagined here as a frothy non-binary jazz club host played by Mason Alexander Park), Shin, and Alisa ask to be defined by the paths they’ve lit for themselves through the darkness of space, and the reluctant heroism of the Bebop crew often hinges on whether they agree to honor those terms. Sometimes being a bounty hunter means that Spike and Jet can’t afford their feelings, while at other times their freelance existence is exactly what permits them to offer people their kindness of non-judgment. The Bebop itself is a floating oasis of scrap metal, a respite from a world in which the past clings to your legs with its teeth, and so it’s mind-boggling that Jet would fail to wrap his bald head around what he and Spike really offer each other through their oil-and-vinegar bromance. Worse, it’s thoroughly boring to watch him try.
Any version of “Cowboy Bebop” is going to have a complicated relationship with the past, and that relationship remains the animating force of Netflix’s live-action show. Similar to Spike himself, this show has no hope of turning back the clock and making things as sweet as they are in our memories. But where the Bebop crew’s efforts to distance themselves from the people they used to be invariably bring them closer toward the people they really are, Nemec’s eyesore of a series only continues to lose sight of why “Cowboy Bebop” is so beloved as it drifts further into the stars — par for the course at a time when intellectual property is less prized for the ghost than its shell. “You can change your name,” Julia tells Spike, “but you can’t change who you are.” To judge by this garish adaptation, it would seem like the opposite is true. This was never going to be the “Bebop” that fans hold so near and dear to their hearts, and that’s fine. The problem is that it doesn’t become anything else, either.
The entire first season of “Cowboy Bebop” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 19.
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