(Cowboy Bebop premieres on Netflix November 19th.)
Let’s be honest, a live-action adaption of Cowboy Bebop was never going to top the original. At best, it would be a complementary addition to one of the greatest anime series ever made. At worst, it would be terrible, and we’d forget it in a month.
But instead, Cowboy Bebop isn’t simply bad. It’s at once well-acted and beautifully produced, but weighed down by lazy directing and aimless writing. Leaving the whole thing that much more frustrating.
The showrunners bill the series as an expansion, but mostly it just feels bloated, with new plot threads bringing nothing to the lean ferociousness of Shinichirō Watanabe’s original. Episodes run from 45 to 60 minutes each, but have enough plot for maybe half that length.
No one should expect an adaptation to be a direct representation of the original work. There’s no point to that. But Cowboy Bebop exists in a bizarre vacuum, where it deliberately recreates parts of the show with 1:1 precision, only to undercut them with a pointless change the very next minute. It’s change for the sake of change, and none of it works.
But Bebop’s problems extend beyond just dodgy adaptation. Most of the series feels like it’s still in the first draft phase. Scenes run too long, the action is clunky, and sometimes entire episodes feel like workprint cuts of the real thing. I had to check multiple times during my viewing that I wasn’t seeing a really rough, unfinished version. But no, this is the real thing. If ever a series desperately needed the guiding hand of a visual director like Robert Rodriguez or Edgar Wright, this is it.
Instead, Bebop turgidly moves from one inert exchange to the next, never deciding on a style. It’s going for the breezy and jazzy tone of the original, but misses the beat every step of the way. It’s like the band is playing a different tune than the performers, only occasionally hitting the same groove. When they do, it’s magical, making the off-key sections stand out even more.
If it wasn’t for John Cho, playing Spike Spiegel, I’d argue the whole thing would be unwatchable. But Cho brings the part to life with effortless charm, gliding through even the laziest dialogue with ease.
Which is a little unfair against both Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda, playing Jet and Faye. Both of whom are perfectly fine and charismatic in their parts. Only they have to carry the brunt of the new invented plotlines, none of which are interesting. In the rare few moments where the series doesn’t trip over itself do we get an inkling of what this trio could accomplish, and it’s a tantalizing glimpse into a much better show.
Sadly, none of that extends to Alex Hassell and Elene Satine, as Vicious and Julia, who seem to be from another series and planet entirely. Hassell’s rendition of Vicious is somewhere between pantomime and a Hammer Films version of Dracula. While Satine, as Julia, turns into a watered down damsel in distress rendition of a tragic anti-hero.
I really want to like Cowboy Bebop more than I do. I love the anime dearly, and as a big fan of John Cho’s work, I wanted this to be a huge win for him. As an actor, he delivers all the goods you’d expect. By any rights, this is the definitive take on Spike Spiegel, and the closest throwback to the disheveled swagger of a noir anti-hero in years. If the show would just give him, Shakir, and Pineda room to breathe, they’d have a major hit on their hands.
But already by the end of the first episode, I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. I kept making excuses for why I wasn’t enjoying the show, and the same sensation continued for the next nine hours. There’s a good series somewhere in here, but for whatever reason, Netflix is releasing an unfinished, unpolished, and aimless product that still needs months of work.
Frankly, I would rather have a Cowboy Bebop adaptation that took its chances with the material and did something completely different than this halfway amalgamation. Now, knowing how the original goes, all I can see is how faithfully it reproduces some elements, only to swerve sideways with a bizarre addition that is neither insightful or original. If Cowboy Bebop were a cover band, it would occasionally sound exactly like the real thing, but mostly it’s just like a bad flute version of a beloved classic.
Here’s hoping the inevitable season two can turn this ship around.