Get everybody and their stuff together: Cowboy Bebop has landed on Netflix in live action and it’s time to jam. Given the popularity of the original, the hour-long debut episode – “Cowboy Gospel” – has its work cut out to win over fans and critics. Did it bag the bounty and bring in the woolongs? Let’s find out with a spoiler-packed review.
Okay, three, two, one, let’s jam!
I was going to start with the pre-credit scene, but let’s skip to the most important part: the soundtrack. I’m happy to say they nailed it. For me, bringing back the musical talent from the beloved anime was the highlight of the first episode. Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts never miss a beat. Beautifully scored with a mix of music from the anime’s opening episode – “Asteroid Blues” – and original compositions, Kanno’s genius is on full display. The fusion of bebop, big band jazz, generic western and Latin genres fuel the shifts in tone here as perfectly as in the anime. The music has always been one element that separates Cowboy Bebop from any other show, and the live action version doesn’t disappoint.
Before the epic opening credits hit, Cowboy Bebop sets out its stall in fine fashion. An eccentric mark and co. takes over a casino. Enter the crew of the Bebop and our first look at John Cho’s “Spike Spiegel” and Mustafa Shakir’s “Jet Black”. Both look and sound the part, and full credit to the costume and set designers for their work throughout the scene and episode in general. The resulting action is fast, brutal, comedic, and entertaining. Especially when they highlight the inherent flaw of having a gunfight on a spaceship. Explosive decompression imminent.
Between the pre-credit fight and our first scene in the perfectly recreated ship, The Bebop, we get a solid sense of the relationship between Spike and Jet and how it might pan out later. They feel like closer friends in live action than in the anime, despite their bickering, and it’s a change I like. It doesn’t keep to the more aloof “cool” of the anime, which is true of the episode in general. Overall, this brings mixed results in other areas, but the on-screen chemistry between Cho and Shakir makes the tonal shift in their relationship work perfectly.
“Do you know what I got the last time I was on TJ?”
From here on in, “Cowboy Gospel” plays out similarly to “Asteroid Blues”. For those who don’t know, a bounty is placed on Syndicate escapee, Asimov, who stole vials of the drug “Red Eye” to sell on the black market in a bid to escape to Mars with his girlfriend, Katerina. Spike and Jet head to New Tijuana to claim the bounty, but things go wrong and both Asimov and Katerina end up dead.
“Asteroid Blues” doesn’t hold back in showing how heavy Cowboy Bebop can get. The live action version tries to play the same notes but there’s a flurry of noise that deadens the impact. This is the main problem I have with the episode. It’s trying to walk a tightrope between the depth of the anime and the action/comedy its creatives seem desperate to make. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work in places. Daniella Pineda’s “Faye Valentine” introduction is a clear example of this.
Despite looking great in a cool costume redesign, some of Faye’s dialogue is cringeworthy and doesn’t sound natural. I think the anime version of Faye can be irritating, but the way she’s used here distracts from what is a beautifully tragic story. I can understand wanting each lead to show up in the first episode, but her personality and role subtracts from the plot instead of adding to it.
“And you will shed tears of scarlet.”
The episode starts to drift from heavily reusing the anime’s plot towards the end, and I think it has mixed results. The anime shows the impact “Red Eye” is having on Asimov, making him violent and losing his mind. Katerina recognises how bad it’s getting, sees the hopelessness of their situation, and puts them both out of their misery. It’s wonderfully crafted, desperately sad, and one of the most memorable scenes in the original series.
The live action version decides to switch it up, hinting at the effect taking “Red Eye” is having while also changing the killer from Katerina to Faye. I respect the desire to do something different. However, if you’ve spent most of the episode mirroring the main plot in detail, it seems weird to change the iconic ending. Doing this just reminds fans that it’s already been done better. I’d prefer them to either stick to the plot or do something completely different, as with the final scene.
Introducing the Spike-Julia-Vicious love triangle early is a great move. By killing the messenger who reports on Asimov’s end to Vicious, we can see he’s vicious by name and nature. It also adds a twist to the story: that Julia never goes into hiding like Spike (now originally called “Fearless”). This opens a range of narrative options for later episodes and gives the series a focal point the anime lacked at times. More of that creativity would make the episode stand apart from the original, and they prove here they can do it well when brave enough.
“Whatever happens, happens.”
Overall, “Cowboy Gospel” is a mixed bag. The problems largely come because the new and old are tripping over each other, allowing neither to shine. If you’re a fan of the anime series, you probably won’t enjoy the episode as much as people who are new to Cowboy Bebop, and it’s this tightrope act between nostalgia and new that’s to blame.
I really enjoyed the chemistry between Spike and Jet, the music swings as hard as ever, and the set and costume departments have done a wonderful job recreating the look and feel of the characters and locations. So, there’s plenty to recommend the episode. However, the show needs to stand on its own more, and I’d prefer to see new and original concepts over rehashing classic content. For a show with Bebop in the title, it shouldn’t be afraid to improvise.