Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’: The Frustration of Unrealized Potential.

Just like Spike Spiegel himself, Netflix never seems to learn. After multiple failed attempts at live-action anime adaptations, Netflix thought to adapt the iconic anime classic that is ‘Cowboy Bebop’. Seeing how the original anime only consists of 26 episodes and a movie, the legion of devoted space cowboys seemed to welcome this announcement with an open mind. The casting definitely helped amp up the hype and bringing back legendary composer Yoko Kanno back didn’t hurt either. So how did it result in such a misguided mess? Most of the right pieces were there and they only had arguably the greatest anime of all time as a reference and yet somehow they managed to make ‘Cowboy Bebop’ boring which is quite an astonishing feat.

major spoilers for Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop‘ are featured in this review.

Now obviously… OBVIOUSLY, no remake or adaptation will ever come close to the original anime. It’s something the fans immediately understand. ‘Cowboy Bebop’ feels like a miracle that happened at exactly the time it had to be done. If it happened any earlier or later, it wouldn’t have been the same. It’s similar to how I feel about ‘The Shining’, a moment in pop culture that no one can ever recapture. However, when it came to ‘Doctor Sleep‘; the modern sequel, it understood that it had to be something different in order for it to work. It’s a brilliant movie in its own right and that is what makes it such a great sequel. With Netflix Bebop, the biggest mistake they made was retelling a story we obviously know a superior version of. This should’ve never been a retelling. Any time they try to recapture a scene straight from the anime, you can’t help but feel like a parent who is being shown a doodle by their four-year-old. They tried, they didn’t know any better but they tried. Except, in this case, they should’ve known to go with original stories. There is definitely a world where a live-action ‘Cowboy Bebop’ makes sense and would make for a fantastic show and this Netflix adaptation definitely has hints of that. It’s just sadly not realized nor will it ever be now that it’s cancelled. That being said, this announcement genuinely made me feel sad because the potential was as clear as day and with some note-taking and tone changes, a second season would’ve saved the show in no time.

When it comes to casting the Bebop crew, Netflix actually did a fantastic job. John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda bring Spike, Jet and Faye to life in a way that’s believable and natural. While there are slight alterations to each character, the overall essence is still there. Cho brings Spike’s charm, wit and utter coolness effortlessly. That being said, I feel like this version of Spike is so bogged down because of his past. Every other scene, he’s reminded of Julia and it tends to make him lose that carefree nature he donned so well in the anime. However, as far as accurate live-action anime portrayals, John Cho actually understood Spike as a character. Faye arguably gets the biggest change in character but it doesn’t really matter all that much because the changes actually work. She’s a lot more snarky, caring, loud and at times annoying which isn’t Pineda’s fault but rather the script which treats her like a child who just found a list of cuss words and is eager to use them. That being said, Pineda nails the emotional scenes and finds the nuance that Faye has very easily. Moving on to Mustafa Shakir who undeniably embodies Jet Black. He was truly a delight to watch, he just was Jet Black, there’s no other way to explain it. The found family dynamic was played up more here than it was in the anime and it worked. I cared for all three of them. The chemistry was there and honestly most scenes with all three of them were genuinely entertaining. It’s a goddamn shame that we were robbed of seeing a competent script serve such great casting for this trio. It feels like they were the ones holding this thing together overcoming the godawful script, excessive use of dutch angles and worst of all… Vicious and Julia.

I am sure that Alex Hassell is a wonderful man and I truly have nothing against him. However, whenever he appeared on-screen as Vicious, I was either compelled to laugh, cry or punch the screen. It is genuinely baffling, insane even how badly they butchered Vicious. The animated Vicious and the live-action Vicious are two completely separate characters. In the anime, he was used sparingly with great effect. He didn’t have that much of a character but he didn’t need it. He was almost a personification of Spike’s past with The Syndicate, showing up to catch up with Spike like time itself. In this version, however, he is turned into an Alucard from ‘Castlevania‘ cosplayer who constantly whines and displays fragile toxic masculinity. He isn’t mysterious, he isn’t menacing, he’s laughable. His connection to Cho’s Spike bogs the show down to ridicule. The entire Julia situation is brought to the forefront with explicit visuals, meaning they don’t just show flashbacks leaving us to pick up the pieces like the original did. In Netflix’s version, we get an entire flashback episode which actually works very well. The concepts surrounding Spike, Vicious and Julia in this episode were actually very compelling had Vicious been written and portrayed in a different manner. Julia’s hatred for Spike at the end makes sense but it all falls apart once you realize that this all started because she chose a whining, moody Alex Hassell wearing a cheap, white wig over John fucking Cho.

The flaws of this adaptation go way beyond just the script and Vicious. The overall atmosphere of the original show is ultimately lost. Whereas every single episode of the anime felt like its own movie with its own genre and vibe, every location in the Netflix version feels as uninteresting as the plot. It doesn’t feel lived in, it feels like a set. There isn’t that awe-inducing level of detail when they travel someplace new. I’ve only seen the anime once but there are so many memorable locations that I can think of at the top of my head. The only location that comes to mind for this version is Tharsis in Episode 3, ‘Dog Star Swing’. The ships and vehicles from the anime are brought to life in stunning ways and whenever we do see them up-close, it’s a delight even if it is for a few seconds. Moving onto dialogue, there’s no other way to say it, it’s awful. The original anime’s dialogue felt natural, it never felt animated or dramatic unless it had to be. In Netflix’s Bebop however, the cast acts more animated and over-the-top than the actual anime. They swear in every other sentence they speak and it genuinely takes you out of the scene because it feels so forced and awkward. It genuinely goes to show how much the writers didn’t care for the original show. They felt like it was something that needed to be improved and modernised and that is the moment Netflix should’ve hired someone else.

Overall, Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ is something I genuinely wanted to enjoy. It has it’s moments, as few as they are but the potential is undeniably there. With a new creative in charge and some crucial decisions, this could’ve been something great. The Bebop crew is well-casted, Yoko Kanno is scoring, the VFX are high budget, all that needed to work was the script which failed spectacularly. Between it’s atrocious dialogue, uninspired writing and dull reimaginings, the show is ultimately a huge embarrasment and that pains me to say. If anything, I hope that newer fans will discover the anime and grow the love from there because even if there are fans of this live-action adaptation, it’s a guarantee they’ll forget about it within a couple months. Once you watch the original ‘Cowboy Bebop’, it sticks and that’s what’s important.

‘Cowboy Bebop’ (1998) and ‘Cowboy Bebop’ (2021) are both streaming on Netflix worldwide.

see you space cowboys…

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