The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop — the iconic 1998 anime series created by the Hajime Yatate collective — has launched on Netflix over the weekend, and it’s an interesting take on the source material. The original series was a future space western story of three bounty hunters (aka “Cowboys”) from different backgrounds who travel across the solar system on their ship (the “Bebop”) in search of criminals to turn in — all while trying to navigate their respective tragic pasts that’s racing to catch up with them.
After watching the live-action series, it’s clear that opinions of the show will vary greatly depending on your relationship to the original. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop makes some very significant changes to the original story, which are definitely going to be polarizing. Like all adaptations, it’s not going to please everyone.
(Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)
Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop follows the adventures of Spike Spiegel (John Cho) — a bounty hunter with a mysterious past — who teams up with ex-police officer Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and an amnesiac, Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), to track down the solar system’s most dangerous (but not always lucrative) criminal bounties.
Leading the cast is John Cho, who does an excellent job at bringing Spike’s laidback and cool (and dangerous) persona to life. He brings maturity to the role that is well suited to his character’s backstory. Cho also looks like he’s having a great time bringing a full range of emotions to this space cowboy, which makes him fun to watch.
Mustafa Shakir (The Deuce, Luke Cage, Jett) plays Jet with all of the gruff and cranky energy that you would expect, but also with a lot of heart. Since this version makes a few big changes to Jet’s history, viewers get to see an even kinder side of him that Shakir is perfectly suited for.
Daniella Pineda (Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, The Originals) gets the opportunity to play a slightly different version of Faye that focuses less on her gambling and physicality. The Oakland-bred actress does a good job of amplifying the snarky, fearless, and reckless aspects of a woman looking to find her past and make a couple of “woolongs” along the way.
The primary antagonist of the series, Vicious, is played with a whiff of camp by Alex Hassell (The Boys, The Tragedy of Macbeth). Vicious is a member of a criminal syndicate with ties to Spike, and is married to Julia (an emotional Elena Satine), a singer who also has ties to Spike.
The supporting cast is filled with a solid group of actors including Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SUV), who exudes cool as nightclub owner Ana. Mason Alexander Park (Hedwig) classes up Gren, who works with the entertainers at Ana’s club. Genre fans will be happy to see Adrienne Barbeau (Escape from New York) as a familiar villain from the anime, while soap fans should recognize A. Martinez (Days of Our Lives) as syndicate capo, Stax. Christine Dunford (Star Wars Resistance) is a standout as a charming grifter who plays well with Pineda, while Rachel House (Moana, Thor: Ragnarok) is also a commanding presence as syndicate boss, Mao.
Adaptations are rarely easy to pull off, and remaking a beloved anime from over two decades ago is extremely difficult. What series creator Christopher Yost (a veteran writer of Marvel and Star Wars animated shows, as well as Thor: Ragnarok) does best with the adaptation, is capturing the style of the anime and the heart of the characters, despite deviating from the original story.
The production — from the clothing to the sets, spaceships, and even the firearms (yes, Spike still has his Jericho 941) — is directly from the anime. The planets and their inhabitants look like they are still living in a solar system reeling from the catastrophe of the Astral Gate accident. There are visual references longtime fans will appreciate like the Three Old Men from Tijuana, or Punch and Judy from the Big Shot show within the show. Even the original Cowboy Bebop composer, Yoko Kanno, returns to score the series.
When it comes to adapting the original episodes, Cowboy Bebop tends to sample story elements and remix them. If you have seen the original, you’ll recognize a handful of memorable faces, especially the villains — from Asimov and Katerina (“Asteroid Blues”) to the sadistic and seemingly unstoppable assassin Pierrot Le Fou (“Pierrot Le Fou”).
The show also condenses several plotlines from the original 22 episodes into 10 episodes, which works to mixed results. Some changes, like Jet and Faye’s new family members, help flesh out those characters in new ways. But the most controversial alteration is undoubtedly Vicious and Julia’s stories. On one hand, it allows the series to move forward in a way that the anime could not. But it doesn’t really serve the characters or story well.
Some of the stand-out episodes include the first episode, “Cowboy Gospel,” which is a good introduction to the lead characters and the world they live in. But the episodes solely dedicated to the leads are good, too. The Jet-focused “Darkside Tango” is a nice retelling of his origins that includes some good character moments (and a conversation about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s classic “A Night in Tunisia” that serves as a reminder of Jet’s jazz obsession in the anime). Faye gets her own version of Midnight Run (but in space) with “Galileo Hustle,” and “Blue Crow Waltz” is a deep dive into Spike’s past with some of the best action sequences of the series.
Ultimately, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop is a heartfelt tribute to a beloved series. In Yost’s hands, the live-action adaptation tries its best to appease veteran fans while playing with the story to bring in new viewers and casual fans.
Ahmad Childress is a Native Angeleno and Professional Blerd. You can find his film and TV work on IGN.com, and he is currently the host of The Insecure Podcast. He can be found talking smack online @AhmadChildress.
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