See you, ‘Cowboy Bebop’: Canceled adaptation full of unfulfilled potential

Photo of Cowboy Bebop
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Netflix’s adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop” was always going to be a challenge. The transition from animation to live-action is one fraught with forgettable failures. Adapting “Cowboy Bebop” — a popular and successful 26-episode anime from the late ‘90s — was always going to be ambitious. Too ambitious, perhaps, as Netflix canceled the show after only one season.

Despite all of the potential pitfalls and disappointments, however, the new iteration of “Cowboy Bebop” does a lot well. The bounty hunter crew of the eponymous spaceship Bebop — Spike Spiegel (John Cho), Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) — are richly reimagined remakes of their animated counterparts. 

Each actor is able to create characters who are fresher, more human and more relatable. Julia (Elena Satine), Spiegel’s long-lost love interest, is given less screen time, but Satine still manages to give her character depth, even though she is relegated to a plot device on more than one occasion. The world they inhabit is a visually rich interplanetary society which mercurially shifts between western, noir and cyberpunk.

Still, “Cowboy Bebop” is inconsistent and gets in its own way. Character development is haphazardly accelerated through poor editing and direction. The first few episodes, in particular, are full of boring fight scenes and slow pacing. It becomes difficult to follow characters who come across as immature rather than smooth. The first rule of being cool is to not try to be cool, and that maxim is lost in the shuffle.

The show’s greatest crime, however, is its weak lineup of rogues, who do nothing to catapult the protagonists forward. Almost every episode features a new criminal whom the crew must track down, and the antagonists are rarely thought-provoking or compelling. Even the show’s main villain, Spiegel’s former partner Vicious (Alex Hassell), seems to be capable of one emotion: anger. Hassell clenches his jaw enough to turn coal to diamonds, and the result is more pedestrian than scary; he is just another one-dimensional bad guy.

“Cowboy Bebop” does find its feet as it goes on. Actors settle into their roles and relationships. Cho is at his best when he’s allowed to drift away from the spotlight and utilize his comedic timing. Pineda transcends the femme fatale — she delves into Faye Valentine’s insecurity, bravado and sexuality phenomenally. 

Shakir steals the show in many ways. He is grudgingly loving, trying desperately to be a part of the family he has lost while unwittingly replacing it with the dysfunctional crew around him. All three chase various bounties and villains while pulling at the threads of their pasts, but the show is at its most entertaining when characters are allowed to joke and jest, show care and compassion.

“Cowboy Bebop” puts things together toward the end. Its penultimate episode, “Blue Crow Waltz,” is its best — a rare achievement for an episode that’s primarily a flashback. The episode gives Cho and Hassell a chance to display a greater range of emotion. In doing so, it erects an almost Shakesperian tragedy — “Blue Crow Waltz” reveals pasts that define the present with characters who were once more innocent, more pure and are now inevitably drawn into conflict. 

The action sequences in “Blue Crow Waltz” and the show’s final episode, “Supernova Symphony,” are more beautiful and meaningful. They are violent, cinematic and ultimately devastating. It genuinely feels as though Cho, Hassell and Satine are losing parts of themselves in these conflicts — drawn into each other’s maelstroms by some relentless tide which only leaves them even more lost and broken.

“Cowboy Bebop” is still imperfect, though, and poor editing pushes the audience from one plot point to the next. There’s never enough time to absorb the changes characters experience on screen. It makes the ending feel uneven and plot twists feel hollow.

More than anything, Netflix’s live action reboot feels unfulfilled. With better editing and direction and more time for the cast to explore their characters, the show could deliver something truly special. Unfortunately, what remains is one season of a visually stunning cyberpunk western with uneven character development that never quite emerges from the shadow of its originator.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen is the editor in chief. Contact him at [email protected].