REVIEW: ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Can’t Carry That Weight

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cowboy bebop live action - But Why Tho

Cowboy Bebop is a Netflix Original live action adaptation of the 1998 anime classic. In the future humanity has colonized the solar system. With so much more space there are so many more places for the criminals to hide. With law enforcement agencies unable to hunt down all the wanted men, society has turned to bounty hunters to bring in the most wanted. Aboard the starship Bebop, a team of these hunters strives to make a living bringing in the worst of the worst. That is of course if their pasts don’t catch up to them first.

Adaptations are difficult. Trying to bring something to a new time, place, and medium is trying under the best of circumstances. And the better the source material is, the more challenging it is to adapt it. After all, you can’t just remake it shot for shot. If you do that, what’s the point. But what does one change? What does one leave? How do you change some of the trappings without losing the core of what made the original great?  While there are numerous examples of wonderful adaptions of anime to live-action, Cowboy Bebop unfortunately isn’t one of them. Let’s start with the positive. Let’s talk about how this reimagining of the misadventures of the Bebop crew gets the style of the original right.

Back in 1998, Cowboy Bebop delivered a pulpy series about a crew of hard-luck bounty hunters that embraced its amazing soundtrack in a way few other series have ever attempted, much less succeeded at. Cowboy Bebop (2021) fully captures the pulp aesthetic as its straight face delivers cheesy dialogue and noir crime moments that they push just hard enough to assure you they are aware of the cliches they are spouting while stopping just short of turning it into an utter farce.  This ability to have fun with itself, while still making the viewer commit to its narrative and characters is one of the aspects that makes the original so brilliant.

The other aesthetic element that Cowboy Bebop gets completely right for this live action is its music. With Yoko Kanno back in charge of the score, this always felt like one of the most sure-fire aspects of this series. And it delivers everything the narrative lets it. Every piece of music resonates with the same energy and vibe as the original did all those years ago.

Now we have to talk about the mixed bag element of this series. How it handles its trio of stars. At the heart of Cowboy Bebop are Spike, Jet, and Faye. Their personalities are the lifeblood of the series. Whether it’s Spike’s struggle to confront his past, Faye’s struggle to find her past, or Jet’s struggle with his need to be the good guy the way the original developed these characters through their hardships made them sympathetic. Combining with this was how honestly the show portrayed its protagonists. The Bebop isn’t crewed by any means heroes. Just a group of people trying to keep gas in the tank and food in their bellies. While Cowboy Bebop (2021) manages to deliver on the struggles of our crew, it fails to deliver them in that same honest light. Part of this is due to a major shift in the show’s focus.

Every one of this series’ episodes is focused on one of its three protagonists’ struggles, with Spike’s story getting the lion’s share of the screen time. To do this the series removes or alters many of the original’s stories’ events to focus on the crew’s stories. Characters who were random bounties are now sent after the Bebop intentionally. This hems in the crew from being who they are when their personal goals and concerns are at stake. And while Cowboy Bebop (2021) at least gets its stars’ general personalities right, it utterly fails with most of the supporting cast.

The least offensive shortcomings in this regard are characters that are done well, just changed so radically that there is no reason to call them what they do. Anna is now a nightclub owner, rather than running her little convenience store andGren is her transgender manager. While this duo is great as who they are, they bear no resemblance to their original character’s denying some great moments from ever possibly taking place. This is particularly true of Gren. More grievous is what the show does to alter Ein’s story. While the aspects of Ein’s history that are altered are only mildly annoying, where it ultimately leaves the data dog at the end of the season infuriates me. And now, we have to talk about the two supporting cast members they truly ruined.

One of the key narrative differences in Cowboy Bebop (2021) is that, early on in the series, Vicous discovers Spike is alive and decides to repeatedly send hitmen after his former friend. To properly explain this, the series frequently returns to Vicous and Julia to give context to why these killers keep showing up, This gives the viewer a lot more time with the duo to understand them. It doesn’t go well. Vicous is reduced from the chilling, cold-blooded murderer he is in the original to a pathetic, ratty-looking man-child prone to temper tantrums. That this man is expected to be a threat to anyone capable of fighting back, let alone Spike, is almost laughable. The attempt to make Vicous feel more like his namesake by giving him some half-baked sense of derangement leaves him as little more than a pale shadow of his original incarnation.

This need to give too much information is also where Cowboy Bebop (2021) fails Julia, and in a way, Spike as well. Near the end of the series, the show devotes an entire episode to reveal the past of Spike, Julia, and Vicous. If this is what the original intended their past to be, it did itself a great service by keeping it as vague as it did. The believability of Spike’s longing for his lost love, as well as the complicated past he is supposed to share with Vicous, goes right down the drain when it is revealed.

While so much of the story and character changes fall flat, Cowboy Bebop (2021) does do a marvelous job presenting its world visually. The look of returning characters and places look great. Every locale is delivered with a striking, eye-catching style.

So, while its failure to properly adapt the story and many of its characters are painful for me, I will say, if you are coming into this series with no prior knowledge of its inspiration, there is a lot to love from Cowboy Bebop (2021). Most of the character changes aren’t bad in and of themselves, except for Vicous, and the places where the plot goes off the rails won’t hurt you as it did me. So if you have no love for the original you might want to give this quirky series a try. Otherwise, I can’t recommend it.

Cowboy Bebop live-action mini-series is streaming now exclusively on  Netflix.


Cowboy Bebop
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    Rating - 6/10
6/10

TL;DR

So, while its failure to properly adapt the story and many of its characters are painful for me, I will say, if you are coming into this series with no prior knowledge of its inspiration, there is a lot to love from Cowboy Bebop (2021). Most of the character changes aren’t bad in and of themselves, except for Vicous, and the places where the plot goes off the rails won’t hurt you as it did me. So if you have no love for the original you might want to give this quirky series a try. Otherwise, I can’t recommend it.