Review: 'Cowboy Bebop' a Lovingly Faithful Reinvention

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 19, 2021

'Cowboy Bebop'
'Cowboy Bebop'  (Source:Netflix)

From the opening credits on, the live-action Netflix adaptation of the Japanese anime "Cowboy Bebop" is a mix of loving, respectful reinvention and fidelity to the source material.

A futuristic noir set in space, the series follows the adventures of a pair of bounty hunters — or "cowboys" — as they flit around the solar system in their ship, the Bebop, so named because the ship's captain, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) is a fan of jazz music. (It's in this same vein that the episode's are referred to as "sessions," as in the anime series.)

Jet's partner of the last several years is a work-shy, but dazzlingly capable, fellow named Spike Spiegel (John Cho) with a laid-back attitude but a mystery-shrouded past that's bound to come back and bite him. Fittingly for the show's noir vibe, the unflappable Spike has a weakness for women who get mixed up with bad dudes; the first episode establishes this in an entertaining manner, but with literary precision. The first episode also introduces a rival bounty hunter, Faye (Danielle Pineda), who's got her own mysterious past... and who slowly becomes more closely allied with Spike and Jet.

These narrative elements play a major role throughout these ten episodes, as the Bebop crew unwittingly get more and more entangled with the internecine power struggles within the Syndicate. A ruthless sociopath with a polished British accent (is there any other kind?) is hatching a scheme to take the Syndicate over. His name is Vicious (Alex Hassell), and he's got a woman of his own, Julia (Elena Satine), who's caught between his charismatic aura of danger and the knowledge that the danger isn't just for show; it really could get her killed. The question is, what is she going to do about it?

This is, more or less, the series' over-arcing storyline, but "Cowboy Bebop" is also an episodic show with a taste for exaggeration and flashy set pieces that defy sense and physics, much in the style of TV shows from 40 or 50 years ago. The individual installments concern appearance-shifting dognappers, eco-terrorists, and psychotic hit men, among other villains and outlaws. (A Western-themed broadcast keeps cowboys updated on the system's biggest rewards and the last known whereabouts of spacefaring desperadoes.)

The high-concept plots are set against a world where technology is highly advanced, and yet vintage in design, so that computer look like 1980s Macs and cars look like models from the '60s and '70s. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who will feel right at home with the production design and the overall tone of the series, while Millennials and Gen Z cool kids who have taken to vinyl records will get a jolt of potent secondhand nostalgia.

Episodic as the show might be, its narrative strands build on themselves, in the process it setting up a puzzle that's riddled with sizable gaps. Who is Ana (Tamara Tunie), and why is her night club a nexus for events that threaten to bring the past back to enraged life and complicate everyone's futures? What's the story with Ana's choreographer and emcee, Gren (Mason Alexander Park), whose gender seems fluid and whose style sense is out of this world? As with any good noir, the picture slowly fills in and holds plenty of surprises.

For all the show's noirish elements, it also incorporates a campy cop show vibe. Starsky and Hutch never had a more oil-and-water relationship, or sizzling bromance, than Jet and Spike, and their misadventures carry both a cartoonish sense of outsized action and the emotional weight of more substantial drama. By the show's tenth episode, the series' serialized storyline has leavened its silly plots with enough dramatic momentum and emotional weight that you've long since surrendered to the show's gravitational pull.

That's not to say there's not plenty of genre fun to be had here. The show's writers litter "Cowboy Bebop" with references to classic sci-fi TV shows and movies, not the least of which is "Blade Runner" — a stylistic cousin shot through with its own noirish elements and vintage stylings.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.