Some people call him “the space cowboy.” Others know him as “Fearless.” Lately, he’s been going by the name “Spike Spiegel”: intergalactic bounty hunter.
The protagonist of “Cowboy Bebop,” a beloved anime series from the 1990s that has been given the live-action treatment by Netflix, is the quintessence of cool: a lithe gunslinger modeled on the late Yusaku Matsuda, with a pinch of Lupin III.
For years, there was talk of him being played by Keanu Reeves in a big-screen adaptation, but that was before the 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” debacle called time on Hollywood’s pernicious habit of casting white actors in non-white roles.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||10 episodes|
Instead, we’ve got John Cho, who brings considerable charisma to the part, if not nearly enough steel. As actors go, he’s more Tom Hanks than Tom Hardy: Despite buffing up for the role, he looks like he’d struggle to win an arm-wrestling contest, let alone vanquish an army of goons by himself.
Across 10 episodes, “Cowboy Bebop” follows this unlikely hero and his fellow adventurers, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), as they track criminals across the solar system while wrestling with their own demons.
Original director Shinichiro Watanabe was a consultant on the series, and composer Yoko Kanno returns to supply a crackling jazz soundtrack. Yet while it generally looks and sounds about right, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” seldom rises above the level of expensive cosplay.
The show’s production designers have outdone themselves in re-creating the look of the anime, set in a futuristic world where no technology is ever obsolete. The characters pilot spaceships and communicate using life-like holograms, but drive around in 1950s sedans and smoke honest-to-God cigarettes. Didn’t anyone tell them about vaping?
After sticking closely to the outline of the opening episode, the series starts to riff more freely on the material. Fans of the anime will recognize a lot of the storylines, and may even appreciate some of the extrapolations, though they’re likely to be left seething by the distinctly off-brand denouement.
Many of the characters have been fleshed out, albeit with the kinds of backstories that could have been brainstormed in writers’ rooms for countless other shows. Jet is now a divorced father trying to make good with his daughter; Spike’s old flame, Julia (Elena Satine), is trapped in an abusive marriage with the dastardly Vicious (Alex Hassell), who’s got daddy issues of his own.
Cho turns out to be the strongest component in a cast that ranges from serviceable (Shakir), to irritating (Pineda), to flat-out awful (Hassell). The last-minute appearance by a familiar face from the anime suggests that things could actually have been a lot worse.
For all the effort that’s gone into the show’s aesthetics, it can often seem like there’s a breach in the hull that’s letting all the air out. The writing can be alarmingly slack, full of weak gags that sound like placeholders inserted while the screenwriters tried to come up with something better. Save for an impressive set-piece in the penultimate episode, the action sequences are mostly forgettable.
It doesn’t help that the whole thing plays like a retread of Marvel’s sassier, sharper “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. While it isn’t nearly as bad as Netflix’s “Death Note” adaptation, “Cowboy Bebop” just doesn’t swing.
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