"Cowboy Bebop" is a live action Netflix adaptation of one of the most beloved sci-fi anime of all time. The original "Cowboy Bebop" combined jazz, blues, and country music (among others) with a slick story pulling from detective noir, blaxploitation, kung-fu, westerns, and old school sci-fi. The episodic nature allowed a variety of tones and the series could go from a very serious character-driven episode to the crew taking hallucinogenic mushrooms in the next.
"Cowboy Bebop" the live action version is... weird. It fails as an adaptation of the series in almost every way, completely missing the mark in tone, use of music, story, and characters. As such, fans (who have been very vocal about this fact all weekend) are going to hate this series. Likely vehemently.
I'm not a fan of "Cowboy Bebop" and have been on record a number of times saying its a good gateway anime but there are better sci-fi series out there (*cough* "Outlaw Star" *cough* "Ghost in the Shell*). So my nostalgia didn't have any sort of stake in whether or not Netflix's adaptation succeeded or failed.
"Cowboy Bebop" stars John Cho, Mustafa Shakir, and Daniella Pineda as bounty hunters traveling the galaxy, barely making ends meet. Cho's Spike is a former member of a massive criminal outfit called The Syndicate and with each episode he's drawn closer and closer to a confrontation with his former brother in the organization, Vicious. Meanwhile he has to put up with his partner, Jet, and a foul-mouthed femme fatale named Faye Valentine who winds up part of the crew. Each episode presents a reinterpretation of an episode from the original series, tying them all together through the Syndicate storyline in a way the anime never did.
The story is completely different and that's strike one for the series as far as fans are going to be concerned. The Syndicate storyline took up maybe six or seven episodes of the main series and was separate from the stand-alone stories. I honestly don't mind that Vicious is seen in nearly every episode and there is episodic continuity in that way as my biggest gripe with the anime was that the main story wasn't as impactful because there are so many unrelated stories happening that slow down the forward momentum of the central arc.
That's not to say that the live-action series has better storytelling at all. Vicious feels like he's forced into every episode and the writers had to find ways to rewrite the main story to give more human interactions and emotional stakes. Vicious in the anime wasn't a strong or interesting villain but here we spend so much time with him he becomes a hammy weirdo rather than a threatening presence. It doesn't help he's always making weird faces and staring directly into the camera. And his hair is distracting.
Strike two against the series is the characters. Spike and Jet in the main series are like brothers and they would get jokey with each other but were generally just two cool guys. "Cowboy Bebop" goes for the Marvel formula of making as many buddy cop jokes as possible. Spike and Jet aren't cool, they're just two weirdos and while the actors look the parts, they aren't playing the parts. This goes five-fold for Faye. She was a femme fatale with an abrasive, selfish personality but she wasn't an obnoxious comedy sidekick who curses every other word like she is here.
So aside from the names, these aren't the same characters.
Strike three for fans will be the style. "Bebop" is an anime but it was mostly grounded, it only leaned into being an anime for comedy purposes. The live-action series, on the other hand, goes for hyper cartoony styling. Everything is bathed in neon, the sets look like they're from a college production, the CG is "Spy Kids" level, the fight sequences are deliberately slow, the majority of the characters overact to a Razzy nominee degree (especially Vicious). There's also the photography. There are plenty of interesting shots in each episode and many times I would have commended the creativity. But when there isn't a neat way to frame the characters, they just go for a canted angle instead. For as cheap as the show looks, you'd think they could afford a third leg for a tripod. At first I was fine with it but as the series progressed I realized three-quarters of your time watching "Bebop" you're seeing everything as if you're standing on an incline.
But then you get to the actual cartoonish moments from the anime such as Ed (which is already an infamous clip) and the Big Shots bounty hunter show. That's when the series goes from competent but questionable to entirely questionable. Like watching a high school anime club recreate a scene from the show. It's embarrassing. But also, being a non-fan and not enduring physical pain seeing these scenes, I spent more time laughing at how anyone thought these were a good idea.
Three strikes you're out right? A bad remake of the plot with a generally bad script, characters who act nothing like their anime counterparts, and an overall style that screams "Spy Kids" or "The Scooby-Doo Movie" over "Cowboy Bebop".
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The problem is, for all the problems, I kind of love this series.
It's bad in a way that is genuinely fun. I can't tell if the creators knew they were making something terrible and the fact everyone is giving a thousand percent to something this hammy and embarrassing makes it so much better. It's the kind of thing you rarely see nowadays because nobody gives budget to schlock. It's nowhere near as bad as "The Room" but it has a quality like "Army of Darkness" where it was made on the cheap, it's stupid, but everyone seems like they're having so much fun that it translates to the viewer. "Cowboy Bebop" is pure, unadulterated corniness. A straight to VHS movie made in 2021 based on a series that deserved better but now will forever be associated with whatever this live-action series is.
It's nowhere near as bad as "Dragon Ball Evolution" or that live-action "Avatar" movie. It's definitely not as bad as Netflix's "Death Note" adaptation. If you're a fan of "Bebop", this will be an affront to everything you hold dear. But if you can see "Cowboy Bebop" as it's own thing, prepare yourself for a ham sandwich with extra cheese.
While Netflix's "Tiger King 2" fails miserably to capitalize on the trainwreck, so-bad-its-good qualities that drew viewers into the first season a year and a half ago; "Cowboy Bebop" will scratch the itch for a dumpster fire you can't pull your eyes away from.
Giving "Cowboy Bebop" any sort of numerical rating is impossible. How do you rate ten hours (and more as I write this review) of cognitive dissonance?