How “Cowboy Bebop” fails to live up to the original

Remaking a masterpiece is always a losing proposition. And 1998’s “Cowboy Bebop” stands as maybe the most revered piece of anime this side of “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell.” Netflix has boldly gone there anyway, adapting the animated sci-fi-noir-Western to a live action thriller with John Cho in the lead as brooding intergalactic bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. 

Like all private eye yarns, this one revolves around a love affair gone wrong amidst a sea of questionable characters. But it’s mostly an excuse to hang out with a trio of mismatched, cranky, heart-of-gold space cowboys as they flit from one bad-idea job to the next.

This “Cowboy Bebop” does a couple of things well. First, it updates some racially-homogenous, glaringly sexist aspects of the original. Second, it’s good bait for viewers who shy away from animation. A few tastes of this, and they might be ready for the original’s stronger stuff, conveniently also available on Netflix.

John Cho as Spike in “Cowboy Bebop.”

Cho doesn’t disappoint. He wears Spike’s iconic blue suit with melancholic swagger, his hair – if not greenish like his animated counterpart’s – a chaotic cloud that still somehow looks impeccably coiffed. He nails Spike’s soulful nonchalance, and seems totally at ease fighting off thugs with a bathroom towel dispenser or lighting a cigarette as he hangs upside down out a window, bathed in the neon glow of a strip-joint sign.

Spike’s partner on the patched-up spaceship the Bebop is the pilot and ex-cop Jet Black, played by Mustafa Shakir (“Luke Cage”), and although his long mutton chops look hilariously glued-on, it’s nice to see an actor of color in the role. (The English-language voiceover actor who plays him in the anime is Black, but the character is drawn White.) As for Faye Valentine, the amnesia-stricken con woman who joins up with these two: Daniella Pineda’s version is as prickly as the original, and twice as clothed. While the original “Bebop” transcended a lot of anime’s ickier leanings, it kept Faye in a barely-there crop top and painfully short shorts. Here, she gets well-deserved pants and combat boots. (Pineda addressed fanboy complaints in a sardonic Instagram post, apologizing for not being six feet tall with a “two-inch waist and double D-size breasts”). 

Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), Spike (John Cho), and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), right, in "Cowboy Bebop."
Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), Spike (John Cho), and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), right, make plans in “Cowboy Bebop.”

It’s the show around these three that’s a real mixed bag. The first episode – or “session,” in keeping with the show’s jazz DNA – isn’t exactly a shot-for-shot remake of the original’s, but it hews quite closely. The rest of the series wanders farther afield, adding detail and background to vaguely-sketched characters. I’m not sure that’s a great move with two key players, Spike’s lost love Julia (Elena Satine), and her husband, Spike’s nemesis Vicious (Alex Hassell). The latter is drawn as a menacing, silver-haired demon, but Hassell plays him with perma-rage face and clenched teeth, making him ironically more cartoonish. Satine’s Julia gets more screen time here, but she’s still mostly around to be blonde and sad. 

John Cho as Spike flees a flaming car outside in the dark in "Cowboy Bebop."
John Cho as Spike flees a flaming car in “Cowboy Bebop.”

Where the anime favored standalone episodes – each could really be watched as its own short film, even the ones with nods to the plot thread – this adaptation puts plot first, which simply isn’t as cool. That might sound trifling, but the whole thing about the series was its coolness. Even as it circled a showdown between Spike and Vicious, it left plenty of room for existential malaise and noir banter. It also featured the de rigeur anime cute kid, who thankfully is mostly absent here. (Sorry, Radical Ed fans.) 

Spike (John Cho) faces off against Vicious (Alex Hassell) and lies on the ground in front of a stained glass window with a gun pointed at him in "Cowboy Bebop."
Spike (John Cho) faces off against Vicious (Alex Hassell) in “Cowboy Bebop.”

The biggest sin the new “Bebop” commits is just not being as gorgeous as the original, which was drawn with poetic artistry on par with any live action heavy-hitter. This version turns that poetry into kitsch, which is fun but doesn’t land with the same weight: If the anime was Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, this one would be Joel Schumacher’s. But I think there’s room for both, especially when it comes to newcomers to the Cowboy Bebop universe. Welcome, friends. There’s so much for you to discover.

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