From the surreal 90s grunge-esque high school romance that was Death Note to the uncanny valley CGI in the Fullmetal Alchemist movie, Netflix doesn't have a good track record when it comes to live-action adaptations of Japanese animation. Sadly, the 2021 Cowboy Bebop web series follows suit.
As a show, Cowboy Bebop is lackluster because it does not live up to 1998 television animation. It attempts to stay faithful to the original show while adding new elements, but the plotline is infested with both acting and structural problems.
Sadly, this indecision between the two leads to the show’s downfall. If Cowboy Bebop had stuck to either side of the adaptation argument, it could have been greatly improved. Instead, the audience is stuck with a show mired by its inability to commit.
The 1998 anime Cowboy Bebop is a gargantuan title to live up to. Eight out of ten times, if you ask an anime fan what the greatest anime of all time is, they’re going to say “Cowboy Bebop.”
The biggest factor is that the show served as the introduction of adult-anime to Western viewers. It premiered on the midnight block of Adult Swim back in 2001.
The plot structure is the largest flaw in Netflix's 2021 Cowboy Bebop adaptation. The original animation, while having some cross-episode plotlines, was largely episodic in nature. It was designed for TV syndication, where a new episode couldn’t be binged one after the other. The problem with the live-action adaptation is that it tries to tie all these episodes together into one large cohesive plot. Where the original series had parallel plotlines, the new series has one large linear plotline.
While the animation had largely serious subject matter, it had a few zanier and comical episodes thrown in to liven things up.
The adaptation attempts to take the oddball plotlines and interconnect them with the more serious elements of the characters’ past. Oftentimes, these plotlines are connected through shoestring plot elements that feel like extreme coincidences.
The fight scenes present throughout the show are good and serve as entertaining set pieces, particularly during the show's opening. Quick cuts and good choreography make them the closest thing in tv you’ll see to a John Wick film.
The main cast performs their roles well, which is important in a character driven show such as this one. John Cho, the actor who plays Spike Spiegel, manages to bring out the dry humor, witty one-liners, and most importantly, the random bouts of humility that the character is known for.
Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black is a fitting adaptation of the animations original character. In the original animation, Jet was a grizzled ex-cop who cared for Spike with father-like intentions. The jump the live-action makes where Jet takes the role of an estranged father trying to reconnect with his child is an easy jump to make.
Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine is the strangest adaptation of the main cast. The original animation portrayed Faye as a luxurious femme-fatale; perhaps too-oversexualized for modern mainstream television, a relic of the past. In the live-action adaptation, she was given a more realistic character, but at the same time, not. She became an almost manic character with energy levels you’ll almost never see in real life. Plus, the character seems to cuss in almost every line of dialogue she has, which feels forced.
The issue of being too violent extends the entirety of the main cast. Throughout the series, they kill dozens of people in humiliating and comedic ways and crack jokes about how funny it is, making it hard to believe the heroes are decent human beings.
The worst acting and characterization in the show belong to the two main villains. Alex Hassel as Vicious is a mop-headed mafia don who carries around a katana and relishes in murdering people in cruel ways. However, he is portrayed to be a very insecure individual who lacks the confidence to achieve the goals he wants in life, relying heavily on the coattails of others to achieve his position. The two sides of the characters don’t meld and Hassel’s stilted acting gives off a comedic feel.
Elena Satine as Julia, while strongly wanting to be a femme fatale, spends most of the show lounging around beholden to the whims of the main male leads. Her plotline is supposed to involve the character becoming independent, but the execution feels forced. It’s hard to describe the character because she feels more like a plot element than anything else.
The show, while mediocre, is moderately entertaining, akin to a Kung Fu movie you would watch on late-night Cinemax. If you're a fan of the original show, this adaptation will leave you greatly disappointed. However, if you're unfamiliar with the series, you may get some pleasure out of it.
Despite the middling feedback, the show is currently holding strong on Netflix’s top ten and a second season is already in the works.