The live-action Cowboy Bebop remake comes with a big caveat. Based on the near-universal complaints of people who know and love the classic anime of the same name, the live-action remake is a travesty. But as someone who has not seen the anime, I can tell you that live-action Cowboy Bebop is fine. Fun, even, if a little too long. So the caveat is, if you love the anime, Cowboy Bebop in live-action is probably not worth your time. But if you’ve never seen the anime, it is a perfectly enjoyable show featuring a charming and hella stylish cast. The strangest thing about watching it is just realizing how much of Cowboy Bebop Joss Whedon ripped off for Firefly.
John Cho stars as Spike Spiegel, a “cowboy”, or bounty hunter, in a future where humanity has abandoned Earth and lives amongst the solar systems in a series of colonies. The world building in Bebop is FANTASTIC. No one belabors the point or stands around expositioning about it, but it’s clear there is a hierarchy of colonies, some better than others, and some colonies look more or less like Earth, while others are crappier and seedier, clearly not receiving the same level of resourcing. The world of Bebop feels very lived in, largely because details like that are grounded in character interaction and how characters navigate the world. It’s all in the context clues, unlike, say, Wheel of Time, where characters talk constantly about the world, but we see very little of them actually LIVING in it.
Spike and his partner, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), travel on the Bebop, a hunk of junk spaceship, and they have the worst luck as bounty hunters. They don’t seem particularly bad at the job, but Spike has a habit of going overboard on the violence, which costs them a lot in damages, or even outright forfeits the bounty when Spike kills someone. And Jet has almost cosmically hilarious bad luck—he’s a former interstellar cop framed and sent to jail for being dirty, and his former partner, whom Jet thinks is the actual dirty cop, is now playing house with Jet’s wife and kid. Jet literally cannot catch a break, and of the three main characters, his is the most emotionally resonant storyline with the saddest resolution.
Joining them is Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), a fellow cowboy who has amnesia after awakening too early from cryosleep as part of a con job. Faye’s story is not super compelling, though later episodes try to mine some depth from her fraught relationship with her con artist surrogate mother, who is more or less holding Faye’s real identity hostage. Pineda, however, is delightful as Faye, brassy and challenging and providing a consistent energy shot to the arm whenever Spike and Jet’s stories get a little dour. Also super fun is the dog, E1N, a space-bred corgi with a neural link to a serial killer. They don’t do a whole lot with E1N in season one, and I hope season two puts the dog into play a little more. It’s fun whenever someone sees him, because in this post-Earth reality, dogs have been relegated to the realm of zoos and the extremely rich (sort of like tigers now). Faye’s reaction to E1N is the kind of contextual world building that makes Bebop feel so tangible.
Spike, meanwhile, is a mostly compelling protagonist. It’s pretty easy to guess where his story is going, but Cho is effortlessly cool and faultlessly engaging as an insouciant bounty hunter with a mysterious past. My only real complaint is that there isn’t a sharp enough line drawn between the Spike of the flashbacks before he becomes a bounty hunter, and the Spike of the here-and-now, who is reckless to the point of nihilistic. It’s easy to put together how he becomes that way, but there is little, tonally, to differentiate past and present Spike. Still, Cho carries the show easily with his wit and charm and mostly good action sequences, and he is spectacularly suited to the noir-ish vibes of the show, with his cool-guy slouching and fabulous f-ckin’ hair. I could watch John Cho look cool and punch people forever, but, as stated in the caveat, your mileage may vary. In all, though, Cowboy Bebop is fun and stylish and mostly engaging, just so long as you’re not already devoted to the original.
Cowboy Bebop is now streaming on Netflix.