Netflix's adaptation of the iconic anime works for the most part, even if it isn't perfect.
While anime diehards are always quick to point out the cultural impact of various, often obscure series and movies, in an attempt to legitimise a fairly distinct genre of cinema, one simply cannot deny the visual, narrative and genre-busting significance of Cowboy Bebop. It's playfulness, iconic music, even the phrase; "See you space cowboy" has been a cultural stable since its debut in 1998, and thanks to both a short runtime of "just" 26 episodes total, and a sci-fi universe ripe with mystery and depth, talks of creating more stories within the Cowboy Bebop sphere has been ongoing for decades.
And here we are. Netflix finally did it, and has created a live-action interpretation of the anime, the first series covering some of the anime's complete arc in its first season of 10 episodes. Creator Shinichirō Watanabe has been consulting, the actors involved have expressed their anxiety to work on such revered source material, and all Bebop fans across the globe, are hoping for a faithful, respectful interpretation.
So how is it? Well, it's in most cases fine, even better than fine to some extent, and surely material with this level of depth will cause disagreements within the global fanbase. That means that, probably, you'll see 10's, or five stars in some places, and disappointed, bitter scoring elsewhere.
I feel somewhat moderately surprised in a positive way. First of all, the series genuinely nails the worn-down aesthetic of Bebop. While mankind has expanded infinitely into the boundless universe, creating countless civilisations across the planetary spectrum, it's all grimey, worn-down, used to the point of breaking. Filthy casinos, run down streets, grimy back-alley clubs, the universe of Cowboy Bebop has, in some ways, "moved on", as Stephen King would describe The Dark Tower, however in other ways it's a thriving capitalistic vision for mankind's future, one where the sky really isn't the limit if you're ambitious enough.
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The Netflix version nails this difficult-to-pull off aesthetic to the letter, and remains its best strength throughout. It mixes different cultural iconography with ease, and does manage mostly to maintain the tricky balance of Watanabe's original work. Add to that some truly playful camera work, mixing hallmark techniques of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, and you have a pretty well-shot and developed show.
Casting is also mostly spot on, with strong performances from particularly Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black. One of the central issues of the show is, however, John Cho's performance as Spike Spiegel. Now, let's start by acknowledging that Spiegel is one of the harder characters to interpret, I've ever encountered. He's sarcastic yet romantic, cynical yet helpful and selfish yet caring. Below he's seemingly apathetic exterior lies a broken, deeply affected man struggling to move on, to fit in, and sadly, Cho never seems to fully understand or otherwise create that same depth in his interpretation of the character. He's not a bad actor by any stretch, but he is not the right actor, although you probably will, as with much in this review, find others who'll say otherwise.
There is also some awkward choreography here and there, where its cinematic flair gives way to fight sequences less elegant than what you'd typically see from other big-budget affairs. It's not a constant, and particularly the more iconic fights, such as the one in Dog Star Swing, is well thought out. It just seems to be more style than substance in some ways.
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Other than that though, it's mostly a triumph, or at least a fitting, respectful interpretation of some truly iconic source material. Some fans might balk at the rearranged narrative structure, favouring a more chronological approach to its central plot points, but most of the stuff that matters is here, and it works.
John Cho's portrayal might turn some off entirely, it did for me, but it'd be wrong to suggest anything else than that Cowboy Bebop mainly works as intended, and if it helps herd more people towards Watanabe's breath-taking anime, well then all the better for it.