'Cowboy Bebop' Review: The Crew's Chemistry Can't Save the Live-Action Series

The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop hits Netflix on Nov. 19, and it will finally reveal whether or not the new series lives up to the classic anime. The show will prove a challenge for longtime fans to get through, particularly because of how it fails to capture the magic of the source material. There are definitely positives to the new series — including the chemistry between its impressive cast — but they don’t make up for its botched attempts to expand upon the original story.

The cast is the most compelling part of the live-action ‘Cowboy Bebop’

When it comes to Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop, the cast is undoubtedly the most compelling part of the show. Bringing an already-beloved character to life in a new format can prove a challenging endeavor, but John Cho sticks the landing as Spike Spiegel. One could even argue he improves upon the character. Cho’s performance often shows a different side to the Space Cowboy, one the anime only ever alluded to.

Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda are equally entertaining as Jet Black and Faye Valentine, and their appeal goes beyond individual performances. If there’s one thing the live-action show gets right about the anime, it’s the Bebop crew’s chemistry. Whether it’s Spike and Jet’s opposites-attract friendship or their reluctant partnership with Faye, the characters will leave viewers smiling, especially when they’re interacting with one another. And as always, Ein is a delight. But with two real corgis walking around on-screen, that was to be expected.

Netflix’s attempts to improve upon the anime fall flat

Unfortunately, the casting choices and chemistry between the characters don’t make up for Netflix’s botched attempts to expand upon the original Cowboy Bebop. To be fair, the show’s intentions are admirable. In the anime, both Vicious (Alex Hassell) and Julia (Elena Satine) feel undeveloped and underutilized as characters. And the adaptation strives to change that, making both a larger part of the story.

Unfortunately, spending more time with these characters somehow makes them less interesting. Not only does Vicious come off as less cunning and intimidating, but Julia’s far more likable as the mystery woman from Spike’s flashbacks.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop also strays from the anime’s episodic format. Although overarching storylines often provide more suspense — and more reason to click “next” on Netflix — it just doesn’t work here. Sure, some of the anime’s episodes feel a little off-kilter compared to the rest. But Netflix’s iteration somehow comes off as more fractured, even with material to connect each installment.

The live-action ‘Cowboy Bebop’ just can’t capture the magic of the original

If there’s one takeaway from the live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, it’s that this story works better in animation. Although Cowboy Bebop should be one of the easier anime to bring to this medium — there aren’t any superpowers or man-eating monsters for one thing — much of what made the original so great is missing from this telling.

Maybe we’re just longing for those spanning shots of the galaxy, but the science-fiction elements of the story often feel overshadowed here. Add in the lack of color and uncharacteristic melodrama, and this adaptation doesn’t feel much like Cowboy Bebop at all. That would be okay if it didn’t try so hard to pay homage to the source material. In the end, it leaves the adaptation feeling like a strange hodgepodge of images from the anime with a story that doesn’t ring true to it.

To its credit, the show does have some solid action sequences and a stunning soundtrack. With composer Yoko Kanno returning to score the new series, that latter probably won’t come as a surprise. But as immersed as fans will be in the opening credits and musical moments, the actual story is likely to take them right out of the magic. If nothing else, it will leave you longing to watch the original.

Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop debuts on Nov. 19, 2021.

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