When Tim Jensen cooed, “I think it’s time to blow this scene” at the start of the iconic “Cowboy Bebop” theme song “Tank!” he probably didn’t mean for you to watch something else on Netflix. But you’d be forgiven if, while you were watching this new live-action reboot, you assumed that’s what he was trying to tell you.
The original “Cowboy Bebop” debuted at the turn of the 21st century and landed with such a concussive force that, in the worlds of sci-fi and animation, it can still be felt today. Created by the animated team Sunrise, it’s an episodic neo-noir about bounty hunters in the future whose steely facades conceal warm, beating hearts, and whose tragic stories can only be told properly with the jazziest of scores, provided by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts.
“Cowboy Bebop” wasn’t just an action series, it wasn’t just a noir, it wasn’t just sci-fi. You could tell where every piece came from but they’d never been put together in exactly that way before. The anime series is a pitch perfect marriage of disparate tones and imagery. It was coolness personified. It’s no wonder that the show spawned one imitator after the other. Some good, some bad.
Sadly, one of those imitators is Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop,” developed by André Nemec (“Without Remorse”). This live-action remake series fails to capture the magic of the original but does — eventually, after nearly all of its episodes have been exhausted — give the ensemble cast enough time to win us over. They’re trying their damnedest to make all these subpar sci-fi aesthetics and padded storylines work. That they almost get away with it is impressive.
John Cho stars as Spike Spiegel, an ex-criminal turned bounty hunter, and his partner is Jet Black, an ex-cop played by Mustafa Shakir (“Luke Cage”). They tool around the solar system in a rundown hunk of junk called Bebop, capturing wanted criminals on one planet or another but — as often as not — they cause enough damage in the process that they can barely afford to buy lunch afterward.
Over the course of the first season, Spike and Jet pick up a few new crew members, including an amnesiac bounty hunter named Faye Valentine, played by Daniela Pineda (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”), and an adorable Welsh corgi named Ein. Every episode finds the crew on the hunt for a new criminal with a quirky, usually deadly scheme. Every episode brings them closer together and every episode threatens to tear them apart if all their secrets are revealed.
The majority of the live-action “Cowboy Bebop” episodes, or “Sessions,” are loose remakes of the original anime storylines about ecoterrorists, killer clown assassins and kidnapped dogs. And if you’re wondering how they turned half-hour anime episodes into hour-long live-action episodes, the answer involves padded subplots, arbitrary plot changes, and — most importantly — banter. Lots and lots and lots of tedious, Whedonesque banter.
Watching “Cowboy Bebop” take its cues from “Firefly” — which was a “Bebop” riff in the first place — is like watching a tail eat its own snake. Yes, you read that sentence right. You know what’s supposed to be happening and you know that ain’t it.
The heaping spoonfuls of quasi-witty dialogue ladled on top of “Cowboy Bebop” go a long way toward making the show friendly and cuddly, robbing the characters of much-needed gravitas whenever the plots get heavy and their backstories turn epic. The live-action renditions of Spike, Jet and Faye — and most of the familiar supporting characters who appear in one form or another — are now lovable dorks straight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mass production plant. They aren’t deeply damaged people who only demonstrate their humanity in spite of themselves. They’re portrayed here as thoroughly redeemable heroes who’ve made bad choices, some worse than others.
It doesn’t feel neo. It doesn’t feel noir. It’s just a bunch of mildly enjoyable sci-fi crime shenanigans. But if you can get past the way the new “Bebop” torpedoes its dramatic ambitions, and if you can get past the sometimes disappointing VFX and the mostly-dreary color palette, then you’ll find that there are a heck of a lot worse things to be than “mildly enjoyable.”
Especially when at the center of those shenanigans you’ve got a star like John Cho, who’s perfectly cast as Spike Spiegel, and effortlessly embodies his lithe physicality, dry humor and wounded soul. Daniela Pineda’s energetic approach to Faye Valentine is a genuinely entertaining new take on the character, and Mustafa Shakir takes some time to settle into the role of Jet — his repetitive speeches in the first few episodes don’t help — but eventually his open-hearted rendition wins us over.
The villainous world of “Cowboy Bebop” is nowhere near as inviting, with off-puttingly arch performances from various bad guys and awkwardly stretched out subplots involving criminal drug-peddling schemes and organized crime alliances. A staggering amount of time across the whole first season gets spent on storylines which could easily have been conveyed in an episode or two. All the filler builds to a big climax, thank goodness, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t filler.
Let’s be clear: if you’re expecting an American live-action reboot of a nearly 25-year-old anime series to have the same effect as the original, you’re setting the bar way too high. Then again if all you wanted was the same old episodes but longer and not as good, you’re setting the bar way too low. That all the pieces of Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” come together in a heap of mediocrity is nothing to celebrate, but at least the original series is available right next to it, at the click of a button.