It’s not like I’m a diehard, lifelong fan of the original anime or anything, but Cowboy Bebop was very fresh in my mind when I dove into its recent live-action reboot on Netflix. Enough so that I knew that it was attempting something extremely difficult: replicating a beloved show’s singular alchemy of noir style, jazzy music, and avant-garde comedy. There’s no diplomatic way to say this: the result here is a travesty, all the more so for the way it wastes its considerable assets.
For the uninitiated, the original Cowboy Bebop is a quirky, animated space western about an oddball gang of bounty hunters struggling to make ends meet in a kooky retrofuture solar system. It has its uneven moments, but by and large it’s a delightfully weird and stylish anime. The remake does smart things right out of the gate, particularly with casting: John Cho is a charismatic fit for Spike Spiegel, Daniella Pineda brings a sassy new take on Faye Valentine, and Mustafa Shakir delivers a near-perfect homage to the original Jet Black. The initial episodes even do a reasonably good job of setting the stage and bringing this trio together, abetted by the remake’s best decision: bringing back Yoko Kanno to contribute the music. In important ways, the new Cowboy Bebop at least looks and feels right.
A fairly promising start quickly deteriorates, however, buckling under the weight of wretched writing. Narratively, the primary problem is an outsized reliance on fairly minor aspects of the original for an ill-conceived central through-line. Mining Spike’s past as a Syndicate assassin, his relationship with a beautiful woman named Julia, and his rivalry with the devious criminal named Vicious, the creative team leans into dark melodrama it isn’t equipped to effectively deliver. And anyway, these are, arguably, inessential elements to the original show’s appeal, aside from playing a light role in the narrative frame. They are nonetheless seized on and over-emphasized, and it’s rather startling how spectacularly it fails to work. Every scene featuring the new Julia (Elena Satine) and Vicious (Alex Hassell) sucks the life out of the show. Cho and Satine have zero romantic chemistry. Hassell’s over-the-top performance renders him so obviously villainous and unlikeable that it makes Spike’s conflicted friendship with him, and Julia’s attraction, unfathomable. The thread recurs constantly, even in unrelated episodes, creating a chronic distraction from the things in the new show that do work: the jazzy energy, the vibe of the Bebop, the camaraderie of the crew. Not that these aspects are all that seamlessly executed either, but Cho, Shakir, and Pineda give it their all. Alas, the important character Edward amounts to a cliffhanger cameo, and Ein the genetically engineered dog is barely present. And really, the parts of the group dynamic that gel have a lot more to do with the skill of the actors than of the clunky dialogue they’re forced to articulate.
Perhaps the new Cowboy Bebop was destined to fail, a Quixotic attempt to contrive magic out of nostalgia for an inimitable chimaera of a show. But honestly, I think the tools were here – good principal casting, a robust budget, Konno’s music, interesting tonal sensibilities – to give the show legs. Unfortunately, it imitates rather than updates, stealing the original’s components liberally, but not necessarily the right ones, and without regard for crafting them into something that works for modern sensibilities. Worse, the show steadily degrades as it goes, and it’s hard to know what is most to blame: the ineffectual Julia, the overwrought Vicious, the slapdash dialogue, the nonsensical world-building, or all of the above. In the end, I suspect none of those parts are nearly as responsible as an overall misguided focus on the shiny surfaces of a classic without much understanding of its heart, its spirit and mystique, and what truly made it work. It’s a crying shame.