Netflix's 'Cowboy Bebop' Adaptation Is a Mess
The live-action series adaptation never quite measures up to the fantastic original.
Live-action adaptations of animated properties are usually better in theory than they are in practice. Speculating about which actors you'd love to see take on the roles of cartoon characters is endless fun—just look at everyone on TikTok breathlessly fancasting forgotten Disney classic Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the muses from Hercules. The late '90s anime series Cowboy Bebop barely finished its run before fans began clamoring for a live-action take on the material that was always sorta-but-not-really-happening (I searched pages and pages of Google Images to find the Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis as Spike and Jet photoshops I know I saw on DeviantArt back in the day but to no avail). But the prospect of a live-action adaptation of an animated property has shifted from something fans hope for to something they tend to dread, when you consider how many we actually have gotten and how many of those ended up being really, reallybad.
Netflix's much-hyped and much-anticipated go at Cowboy Bebop has a lot going for it—an absolute gift of a cast, original series composer Yoko Kanno back for another round, a roomier episode length that allows for tons of story expansion, a visual effects budget most genre television can only dream about—yet it stumbles where it's supposed to cruise, whiffs instead of claiming the bullseye.
For the uninitiated, the story follows the two-man crew of the spaceship Bebop: bounty hunter Spike Spiegel (John Cho), whose loud mouth and quick fists get them in and out of a lot of trouble; and Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), an ex-cop who has chosen hunting down criminals as a somewhat steady way to make a quick woolong. Occasionally along for the ride is Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), a fellow bounty hunter with no memory of her former life after spending too long in cryosleep; and little Welsh corgi super-genius Ein, accidentally picked up while Spike and Jet were hunting down a score. Most of the episodes follow the three as they pursue various baddies, highlighting classic characters from the anime, like drug dealer Asimov and face-changing Abdul Hakim, until Spike's past threatens to catch up to them in the form of Vicious (Alex Hassell), the ivory-haired enforcer of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate, and his femme fatale Julia (Elena Satine).
There's a lot that this show does well, so I'll start with that. Though their takes on their characters are all slightly different from the source material, Cho, Shakir, and Pineda are fantastic, playing off each other like old buddies and reluctant comrades, and elevating a lot of the show's shakier writing, to say nothing of how a show with so many leads of color is such a welcome sight. The music is great, as expected, since most of it is covers of the original score. The sets are well dressed and feel-lived in, and you can't even tell that most of it was filmed during COVID. Everyone looks great, Mustafa Shakir nails the Jet voice and affect (voiced in the English dub by Beau Billingslea), while John Cho mostly just sounds like himself, which is fine, as Steve Blum's voice is doubtless difficult to copy. All of this is great, and will provide the requisite jolt of endorphins we all get from spotting references to other things that so much of today's pop culture capitalizes on. The thing is, it's damning when the best part of something is everything it's copying from its source material.
If Netflix's Cowboy Bebop were its own thing, and not an adaptation of a huge cultural touchstone, I could see it being a semi-stylized curiosity that showed enough promise here and there to maybe find its sea legs in a second season. As a rule, it's unwise to compare adaptations too closely to their source, because every adaptation changes something about what came before. But this Bebop is not its own thing, and it will be compared to the original, and when you inevitably do that, the live-action version doesn't stand a chance. If you're going to adapt what is not-so-arguably a perfection of the form, you need to bring it. Something like this should dazzle, rather than simply function. It's like bell peppers and beef without the beef: It's not that the show is bad—there's just not a whole lot that's really, really good.
Maybe this is more a problem with Netflix itself. Maybe it's Netflix's house style, for which every original production seems to be mandated to look the same as all the others (if I have to watch another show in which everything at the edges of every shot is blurred out, or where canted camera angles try to trick you into believing you're watching something with visual style, I am going to set off an international incident). Bebop's social media team, bless them, has not been helping things with their tweets comparing the muddy, washed-out shots of this to the vibrant anime. Maybe it's the streaming service's tendency to make overlong movies out of its TV shows instead of crafting stories told in individual, discrete episodes that, together, make up a whole. The roughly hourlong episode length is a huge misstep here, where the original series never took longer than 25 minutes to tell stories that kept you glued to the screen. All the filler frustrates rather than expands on the narrative.
Maybe none of that will bother some people, and the show will gain its cohort of fans who are happy with how it turned out. The main issue is that the adaptation forgets what made Bebop great in the first place: It's cool, it's stylish, it's mostly pretty serious and sometimes violent, with a sprinkling of humor that's considerably drier than the sort of writing we expect from an Avengers movie (looking at you, "That's MY line!!" gag in the very first episode). Most of all, it was something totally new. Something that is simply a version of a show that crossed an ocean and galvanized a medium, combining multiple genres—space operas, westerns, yakuza gangsters, jazz—and inspiring scores of imitators is doomed if it stops at replacing cartoons with real actors and sets and calling that enough. There's plenty to like about this show (and I want to like it!), but not enough to justify the result. Easy come, easy go.