From the brilliantly defined cast of characters to the lively world-building, there’s a lot to love about “Cowboy Bebop.” However, the live-action adaptation fails to properly translate any of these aspects from the original anime.
Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the seminal 1998 anime “Cowboy Bebop” was released to a wave of negative reviews from critics and fans alike. It’s not hard to understand their disappointment given the legendary status of the anime and the difficulty for any adaptation to live up to that. Still, considering the work in a vacuum and not comparing it to the original, it suffers from cheesy action sequences, poor special effects, clunky dialogue and annoying characters.
The plot remains the same, as it takes place in 2071 and follows a crew of galactic bounty hunters tracking down wanted criminals. All the while one of the bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel, is being hunted down by Vicious, a member of the gang he used to be in before faking his death. The series relies heavily on the overarching plot of Vicious wanting to take over the Syndicate and kill Spike at the expense of stripping down the episodic structure present in the anime.
Vicious’ increased screen time costs him his mystique which is also impacted by the character’s new personality. Rather than being a cold, callous, stoic villain, he’s an overemotional, pathetic man with daddy issues dedicated to killing the former friend who cucked him. The fact he looks like a high school drama teacher who’s into cosplay further makes what was once a fitting moniker more of an ironic one.
At times the action sequences felt like they were stylized too similarly to that of the anime. What worked in animation failed to work in live-action, leaving the combat feeling cartoonish. The special effects as well are subpar and come off as cheap. This is evidenced early on in the first episode after the setting — a casino in outer space — has a hole blasted in it, leaving everyone holding on for dear life at risk of being sucked out. That whole part of the scene feels like it was made shoddily with green screens and fans without even trying to hide it.
The dialogue at times swings precariously between awkward and cringe inducing. Moments featuring the discussion of manscaping preference or the therapeutic nature of bidets feel out of place. But a scene based around a woman flirting with Jet Black, Spike’s bounty hunting partner, through pickup lines solely revolving around the fact he’s Black manages to come off as both racist and like the low bar for the dialogue has reached subterranean depths.
“Sounds to me like blackmail,” says Jet. “You’re damn right it is because Jet you are black and you are male,” responds Woodcock, the older white woman hitting on him. Yet despite having to deal with lines like this, Mustafa Shakir delivers a faithful and praiseworthy performance as Jet, as does John Cho in portraying Spike.
Like Vicious, Julia has had her portrayal seriously altered from that of the source material. Where Julia, who Spike loves, had been on the run in the original she is now married to Vicious, introducing a bizarre love triangle to Spike and Vicious’ rivalry. As well, without spoiling anything, Julia’s whole personality and character is a lot darker.
Faye Valentine has also had a significant amount of her backstory altered, as have all the characters, usually for worse. She went from a sassy, hot-headed, gambling addict to a bounty hunter whose most distinct characteristic is swearing like an edgy 15-year-old. She’s also a member of the LGBTQ community, and they managed to do so without making this aspect of her identity the punchline for cheap jokes like they did with Jet.
It honestly feels like the showrunners don’t understand what made “Cowboy Bebop” such a great anime and as such the show comes off like a cheap parody. But there are moments where it feels like something decent when considered as its own standalone entity rather than an adaptation. However, I don’t see myself coming back to this while I continue to come back to the anime.