How ‘Cowboy Bebop’ doesn’t live up to the original

Redoing a masterpiece is always a losing proposition. And 1998’s “Cowboy Bebop” is perhaps the most revered anime track on this side of “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell”. Netflix went there boldly anyway, adapting animated-noir-Western sci-fi into a live-action thriller with John Cho leading the way as dark intergalactic bounty hunter Spike Spiegel.

Like all private investigator sons, this one revolves around a love story gone awry amid a sea of ​​questionable characters. But above all, it’s an excuse to hang out with a trio of mismatched, grumpy, and heart-of-gold space cowboys as they move from one bad idea job to another.

This “Cowboy Bebop” does some things well. First, it updates some racially cohesive and overtly sexist aspects of the original. Second, it’s a good bait for viewers who fear animation. A few sneak peeks of that, and they might be ready for the stronger stuff from the original, also available on Netflix.

John Cho as Spike in “Cowboy Bebop”.

Cho does not disappoint. He wears Spike’s iconic blue suit with a melancholy swagger, his hair – if not greenish like his lively counterpart – a chaotic cloud that always looks impeccably groomed. He nails Spike’s moving nonchalance and seems utterly at ease fighting thugs with a towel dispenser or lighting a cigarette as he hangs upside down by a window, bathed in the neon glow of ‘a band sign.

Spike’s partner on the spaceship patched up the Be-bop is the pilot and ex-cop Jet Black, played by Mustafa Shakir (“Luke Cage”), and while his long mutton chops look hilariously taped, it’s nice to see an actor of color in the role. (The English-speaking voiceover actor who plays him in the anime is Black, but the character is drawn in white.) As for Faye Valentine, the amnesiac con artist who joins these two: Daniella Pineda’s version is also pungent than the original, and twice as dressed. While the original “Bebop” transcended many of the anime’s most disgusting inclinations, he kept Faye in a barely there crop top and painfully short shorts. Here she gets some well-deserved combat pants and boots. (Pineda responded to fan complaints in a sardonic Instagram post, apologizing for not being six feet tall with a “two-inch waist and D-size double breasts”).

Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), Spike (John Cho) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), right, in "Cowboy Bebop."
Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), Spike (John Cho) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), right, do projects in “Cowboy Bebop”.

It’s the show around these three that is a real mixed bag. The first episode – or “session,” in keeping with the show’s jazz DNA – isn’t exactly a blow-by-blow remake of the original, but it’s pretty close. The rest of the series wanders further, adding detail and background to loosely sketched characters. I’m not sure it’s a good shot with two key players, the lost love of Spike Julia (Elena Satine) and her husband, Spike Vicious’ nemesis (Alex Hassell). The latter is drawn as a menacing demon with silver hair, but Hassell plays him with a perma-raging face and clenched teeth, which ironically makes him more cartoonish. Julia de Satine spends more screen time here, but she’s always here to be blonde and sad.

John Cho as Spike runs away from burning car outside in the dark "Cowboy Bebop."
John Cho as Spike escapes from a burning car in “Cowboy Bebop”.

Where the anime favored stand-alone episodes – each could truly be watched as its own short, even those with nods to the plot – this adaptation puts the plot first, which is not. just not so cool. It might sound insignificant, but the main thing about the series was its freshness. Even though he circled a confrontation between Spike and Vicious, he left plenty of room for existential unease and black jokes. It also featured the de rigeur anime cute kid, who luckily is mostly absent here. (Sorry, Radical Ed fans.)

Spike (John Cho) confronts Vicious (Alex Hassell) and lies on the floor in front of a stained glass window with a gun pointed at him in "Cowboy Bebop."
Spike (John Cho) confronts Vicious (Alex Hassell) in “Cowboy Bebop”.

The biggest sin the new “Bebop” has is simply not looking as gorgeous as the original, which was drawn with poetic artistry on par with any heavy hitter of live action. This version turns that poetry into kitsch, which is fun but doesn’t have the same weight: If the anime were Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, this one would be Joel Schumacher’s. But I think there is room for both, especially when it comes to newcomers to the Cowboy Bebop universe. Welcome friends. There is so much to discover.