Review: Reimagined Cowboy Bebop largely preserves beloved elements of original
It’s a daunting task to create a live action series out of one of the most trailblazing, influential anime series of the last 25 years. That would be Cowboy Bebop, a stylish, genre-busting neo-noir space western that earned universal acclaim when it debuted in 1998. Count yours truly among its many admirers. So I had some reservations about Netflix’s decision to adapt the original into a live-action streaming series—why mess with perfection?
Diehard purists likely won’t be happy; the new series is a different beast. But I found that Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop mostly struck a balance between preserving the most beloved elements of the anime and remixing them in fresh, intriguing ways for a new dramatic format. Is it flawless? Hardly. But it’s still pretty darn entertaining.
(Spoilers for the 1998 anime series below. Some spoilers for the live-action series, but no major reveals—except for one smallish one at the very end. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)
Set in 2071, the original anime series is about a group of bounty hunters on a spaceship called the Bebop. Earth has become largely uninhabitable, and people have colonized the various rocky planets and moons of our solar system. The Inter Solar System Police (ISSP) rely on contracts with bounty hunters, called “cowboys,” to keep criminal activity in check, although the powerful Red Dragon Syndicate nonetheless manages to thrive.
The main character is Spike Spiegel, a bounty hunter born on Mars with a history of violent gang activity and a penchant for fisticuffs, not to mention a tragic romance in his past. His BFF and business partner is Jet Black, captain of the Bebop and a former police officer with a cybernetic arm. Their crew expands over the course of the series. Faye Valentine is a con artist and fellow bounty hunter who spent over 50 years in suspended animation after a space shuttle accident and hence suffers from amnesia. Ein is an adorable, genetically engineered Welsh corgi. And Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV, aka Radical Ed, is an eccentric and energetic teenaged girl skilled at computer hacking, who provides much of the show’s comic relief.
In addition to their weekly adventures, each member of the Bebop‘s crew each had broader character arcs, exploring their respective backstories—particularly Spike’s. Spike had repeated tense encounters with archnemesis Vicious, an ambitious member of the Syndicate. Vicious and Spike used to be blood brothers until Spike had an affair with Vicious’s girlfriend, Julia. The two had planned to run away together, but nobody leaves the Syndicate alive. Julie had to go into hiding, and Spike faked his own death and eventually joined Jet Black on board the Bebop. A final showdown between Spike and Vicious made up the series’ tragic climax. Director Shinichirō Watanabe didn’t blink on that score; the show ran for a single glorious season and helped redefine what people thought anime could be in the process.
Cowboy Bebop drew critical acclaim and became a cult hit thanks in part to its striking visual style and its strong thematic elements—and, of course, it’s incredible, eclectic soundtrack, courtesy of Yoko Kanno (whose mannerisms inspired the character of Ed). The term “masterpiece” doesn’t get thrown around that often with regard to anime, but in the case of Cowboy Bebop, the moniker is deserved. I rewatched the entire series recently, since I hadn’t seen it for years, and it’s as fresh and enjoyable as it was the first time around.
That was the level of adulation facing showrunner André Nemec and his team when they took on the challenge of creating a live-action adaptation. (Nemec previously worked as a writer and producer on Alias, as well as the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.)
“I knew we were treading on hallowed ground,” he told the Los Angeles Times, realizing he and his writers needed to approach the task with equal parts reverence and a willingness to depart from canon and reinvent when necessary. Two decades have passed, after all, and a streaming series is very a different medium than the original half-hour format. Their mantra: “It’s Cowboy Bebop, let’s not f— this up.” It helped that Watanabe consulted for the new show, with Kanno returning to compose the soundtrack for the series.
The live-action series opens with an action-packed set piece, in which Spike and Jet try to foil a heist at a space casino—with disastrous results. Strapped for cash, they next track down a bounty named Asimov Solensan (Jan Uddin) and his wife, Katarina (Lydia Peckham). The couple has stolen a batch of a sensory-enhancement drug called Red-Eye from the Syndicate and are trying to sell it in New Tijuana. This is straight from the anime’s pilot episode, with just a few tweaks here and there—namely, the presence of Faye as a rival bounty hunter hired by Katarina’s wealthy father to retrieve her.
Ecofascist terrorist Maria Murdock (Adrienne Barbeau, Carnivale), another favorite from the anime, shows up in a later episode—except the gas she releases turns people into trees rather than monkeys. Also getting screen time are the face-shifting thief Abdul Hakim (Cali Nelle), who originally steals Ein before the corgi ends up joining the crew of the Bebop; the madman Pierrot Le Fou (Josh Randall, Ed, Scrubs); and the infamous “Teddy Bomber” (voiced by Rodney Cook). And Punch and Judy (Ira Munn and Lucy Currey, respectively) ham it up as co-hosts of the fictional show Big Shot, which tracks bounties and those who hunt them. It’s kind of a public service.
Nemec and co. successfully established the Chandler-esque neo-noir tone, Kanno’s new score is sheer delight, and the casting is perfection. John Cho (Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow) brings a weary, jaded nihilism to Spike, with just enough of the naive, hopeless romantic intact to keep him likably vulnerable. Alex Hassell (Suburbicon) plays a suitably edgy and violent Vicious; Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) plays a feisty Faye Valentine; and Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage) brings out Jet Black’s basic decency and strong moral code, not just his exterior toughness.
(Warning: one major reveal below.)
Notably absent from all these wacky hijinks is Radical Ed (Eden Perkins), who only shows up briefly in the final scene to set up a possible second season, despite being a central character in the original anime. Nemec has said he felt the writers had enough on their plates for S1 and wanted to save their exploration of Ed’s character for S2 in order to do her character justice—a decision that has understandably angered some fans.
There are several other significant departures, although none quite as central as omitting Radical Ed. Most notably, Elena Satine (Revenge) plays Julia, whose character has been fleshed out considerably (she mostly appeared in flashbacks in the anime). In fact, most of the female characters have been reimagined to show more personal agency, while the character of Gren (Mason Alexander Park, The Sandman), a jazz musician who works for club owner Ana (Tamara Tunie, Law & Order: SVU), is nonbinary.
I think most of the departures were wise decisions, given the passage of time and the very different storytelling requirements for a live-action series. Julia, in particular, is a far more interesting character, whose decisions over the course of the season set up a truly shocking final twist. Cho got shredded for this very physical role, and the fight choreography is largely enjoyable, if a bit choppy and frenetic. Still, there’s room for improvement on that score, and plenty of story fodder left from the original anime to mine for a second season. Here’s hoping the Netflix gods grant us one.