If you’re going to go to the trouble of making a live-action Cowboy Bebop, then it’s probably best to actually make a live-action Cowboy Bebop. Because what Netflix did isn’t that, and pissing off a bunch of ‘90s nostalgics wasn’t worth it.
In this so-called adaptation of the anime classic, John Cho leads as intergalactic bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. The start of the reboot sees Spike joining forces with fellow space cowboys Jet Black and Faye Valentine, played by Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda. Together, the group embarks on a dicy, interplanetary adventure full of wacky characters, zany tech, and lurking dangers. Even as Spike’s dark past reemerges to take him down, the lovable rogues fight and quip their way through an onslaught of obstacles to pursue their marks. Also, they’ve got a corgi.
Sure, that sounds a lot like the original Cowboy Bebop. It’s also a pretty generic space western that could have been named anything else. Netflix pulls liberally from the original series in a big picture sense, mimicking reasonably well the anime version’s signature jazz score, messy comedic beats, and over-the-top action. But when it comes to what really made the animated series special, the live-action version opts for so many drastic changes that comparing the projects is borderline nonsensical.
There are good updates. For example, giving Faye a bigger role, a queer love interest, and actual pants. There are also bad updates, such as turning Jet’s once tragic backstory into something resembling an uber-violent Jingle All The Way. And finally, there are the baffling updates, namely overhauling the neo-noir romance and betrayal plotline that made Spike so compelling in the original. To say Spike’s nemesis Vicious (Alex Hassell) and love interest Julia (Elena Satine) are “different” in the live-action version is an understatement so massive it’s got gravitational pull.
These radical changes threw me for a loop across all ten episodes. But that didn’t necessarily make the show bad. I found the audacity of claiming this series as a Cowboy Bebop successor kept me from enjoying what it was doing well. I couldn’t see beyond the anime inspiration it was mangling. The production value is ridiculous. The stunts are spectacular, and the performances are riveting. It’s just not Cowboy Bebop.
That’s not to say you won’t recognize plenty in this pseudo-remake. Loyalty to the source material is paramount in situations like this one, and Netflix clearly invested in delivering a few key scenes. But the series’ closest re-enactments — namely of those famously killer opening credits and that spectacular cathedral fight sequence — ultimately arrive as little more than grating reminders of everything the new Cowboy Bebop is not. Instead of tethering two versions of the same story together, these matching moments act as jarring reminders that this really should have been an original show, since so much of it has changed.
The stunts are spectacular, and the performances are riveting. It’s just not ‘Cowboy Bebop.’
Even when I found myself getting into the new-fangled action, references to the original yanked me back out. That iconic “see you space cowboy” kicker, for example, is one of my personal favorite elements not just in Cowboy Bebop but in any show ever. It appears in the live-action version exactly as it did in the anime version. Yet I came to dread its arrival. Those immortal words put salt in my wounds of disliking a reboot I was really, really excited about.
Broadly speaking, I’m all for bravely making changes in an adaptation. But when you’re taking something this beloved, those changes — whether they’re additions, subtractions, or mutations — must make your story demonstrably better. Here the logic behind what shifted and why is infuriatingly obscure. The decision to preserve the bounty-related news show “Big Shot” sticks out as an especially awkward choice, considering the acting for it is weak compared to the over-the-top anime rendition. Conversely, the call to seriously sideline Ed, one of the original’s main characters, seems a missed opportunity. I won’t expand on that more for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say, I missed the little weirdo.
Yes, the effort, the talent, and the immense love of the original needed to make this live-action adaptation work are all there. But, in the end, the Cowboy Bebop moniker detracts from an impressive world that could have worked if it weren’t shackled to another. The leading trio is profoundly likable and could have just as expertly crewed a ship that isn’t the Bebop. And without the weight of an adaptation on their shoulders, they might have had an easier time selling me on their story.
But ultimately, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is another disappointing misfire in the canon of ill-advised reboots. If it’d had the courage to stand out on its own two rocket boosters, maybe I’d feel differently. But it didn’t, so I don’t. Bang.