Alex Hassell as Vicious and John Cho as Spike Spiegel in a conforntation from Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)
Alex Hassell as Vicious and John Cho as Spike Spiegel in a conforntation from Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)

TelevisionNovember 19, 2021

Review: Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a so-so version of an all-time anime classic

Alex Hassell as Vicious and John Cho as Spike Spiegel in a conforntation from Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)
Alex Hassell as Vicious and John Cho as Spike Spiegel in a conforntation from Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)

The long-awaited live action adaptation of one of the most successful anime series of all time finally drops on Netflix today. How does it hold up? 

Let’s get straight to it: Netflix’s version of Cowboy Bebop is not as good as the anime. 

The original Cowboy Bebop, released back in 1998, is maybe the most acclaimed anime of all time. The team at Hajime Yatate seamlessly blended several genres (western, noir, sometimes screwball comedy) with gorgeous animation and an incredible soundtrack. It made the world stand up and take notice. Even now, 20 years later, Cowboy Bebop is the high bar for every other anime to clear.

Adapting something so perfect was always going to be a tall order, and while the live-action version doesn’t reach the original’s heights it’s far from a failure.

From left to right: John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine and a very good boy as Ein. (Photo: Netflix)

If you’re new to the story, the opening scene will likely serve as a litmus test for whether Cowboy Bebop is your particular cup of tea. Bounty hunters Spike Spiegel (John Cho at his most charismatic) and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir, also great) interrupt a heist at a casino. The colours are stark and bright, the costumes are ridiculous, and the performances of the disreputable gang are just on the right side of hammy. The quips fly around in abundance. Eventually, the heist goes so wrong that a gun goes off, and it’s revealed that, yup, we’re not in Vegas. We’re in goddamned space. 

It takes the entirety of the first episode, which has the two bounty hunters chasing after a wealthy heiress and her drug-addled boyfriend, for Cowboy Bebop to properly reveal what it’s doing. This isn’t a show about bounty hunters trying to get their money, this is a story of people trying to outrun their various pasts, and failing at it. The primary focus of this? Spike reckoning with having betrayed his best friend and one-time partner, mob boss Vicious (Alex Hassell).

As the season progresses, the show doesn’t quite get the balance right between a “bounty of the week” structure and a more seralised, unfurling story, which the source material did excellently. The anime series, though often a wild ride, was ultimately a meditative affair. It was as much about the misfits aboard the Bebop (Spike and Jet’s spaceship) reflecting on their past, and having to confront the mistakes they’ve made, as it was about whatever bounty they happened to be chasing that week.

If what you’re wanting from Cowboy Bebop is a fun romp through space, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be disappointed. It looks great – you’ll probably recognise a few Tāmaki Makarau filming locations – and the action scenes are definitely the best that Netflix has ever done, a perfect marriage of balletic stunt work and eye-popping CGI. Most importantly, Yoko Kanno returns to do the soundtrack. It’s hard to overstate how vital the music was to the initial series, with many of Kanno’s compositions inspiring the direction of the narrative, which she would then build on. While the soundtrack is less vital here, Kanno’s blend of blues, jazz and opera does a lot of heavy lifting to get us invested in this deeply specific, strange world.

John Cho as Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)

However, whenever the series wants to get a bit darker, a bit deeper – or frankly, when it tries to say something profound – it rests on the performers to get it across the line. Some of them handle this burden better than others. 

Cho and Shakir are flat-out excellent, interpreting these classic characters in ways that don’t feel like cosplay, but more like tributes. Cho, in particular, nails the very specific vibe of someone whose charisma and aloofness hides a deep hurt. Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine, perhaps the most notorious heroine in anime history, has the most difficult job. Faye is brash, obnoxious and deeply frustrating, but we have to not just buy that Spike and Jet would let her tag along, but also invest in her journey. We have to find her appealing despite herself. Pineda handles this challenge tremendously, and manages to pull together the disparate elements of Faye’s tortured story into a coherent human being. She’s charming as hell, the kind of character you want onscreen at all times.

The supporting cast are also uniformly stellar, including standouts Tamara Tunie as the jaded proprietor of an underground club and New Zealander Rachel House as mob boss Mao. It’s these smaller, vivid performances that end up selling the world, even more than the sets and effects. One of the most rewarding aspects of Cowboy Bebop is learning about the odd peculiarities of this world, and seeing the various misfits interact with each other, in often ridiculous ways, is a definite highlight of this live-action version.

Tamara Tunie as Ana in Cowboy Bebop. (Photo: Netflix)

However, two crucial performances don’t just miss the mark, they don’t even appear to have been aiming in the right direction. Alex Hassell as Vicious is cartoonishly hammy; his take on the character is less cold, calculated killer and more bulging-eyed lunatic. While a part of that is down to how the series reinterprets and positions the character – Vicious is much more prominent across this season’s 10 episodes than he was across the anime’s 26 – Hassell goes big and falls flat. What made the original character memorable was that he was legitimately terrifying; you believed he would walk into a room and instantly command attention. You can barely believe that somebody would take this Vicious’ coffee order.

Meanwhile, Elena Satine barely registers as Julia, the focal point of the love triangle between Spike and Vicious. Again, part of this is down to the reinterpretation of the character. The original Julia was barely seen on screen, which was by design: we were meant to understand that this woman, the object of affection of two deeply unstable men, was off living her own life with her own hopes and dreams. This Julia, in contrast, is a near constant presence, and the character simply isn’t developed enough to justify it. As a result Satine is cornered into playing various riffs on the damsel in distress trope. It’s a poor reflection on this series that a version of a character we see and hear so much from feels less full than a version we once barely saw at all.

All that being said, Cowboy Bebop gets more right than it gets wrong. It’s still a fun, vivid ride with a melancholic undercurrent, like a slightly depressed roller coaster. It also updates some of the more dated (problematic) parts of the anime, especially its approach to gender and sexuality, without ever feeling strained or pandering. If you’re watching it to see another take on this world and these people, you’ll come away from it smiling; there are more great moments than terrible ones. However, if you’re watching the series expecting the anime, or something anywhere near as good, I would suggest you simply don’t. Just watch the anime. It’s also on Netflix.

Cowboy Bebop is available to watch on Netflix now.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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