The Netflix live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop stays way too committed to the original show and ends up looking like a parody trying desperately to be taken seriously.
It seems like nothing is off the table in this era of reboots and remakes. Now, even old cartoons from the 90s are being resurrected by streaming services and large entertainment producers cashing in on nostalgia with little regard for the legacies of these long established franchises. Even the 2005 Nickelodeon hit Avatar: The Last Airbender is getting a live-action remake via Netflix. What’s notable is this trend of banking on nostalgia being extended beyond entertainment to things like… old big-box retailers? But I digress.
Well it appears that next up on the nostalgia hit list is none other than the classic 90s anime, Cowboy Bebop — a 26 episode western meets sci-fi meets noir animated series from Japan that ran during the spring of 1998.
The original show was characterized by its blend of a cunning Tarantino-esque/postmodern style in its portrayal of characters and their simultaneously witty and existential dialogue, in combination with the fast-paced and highly expressive medium of anime. Not to mention the soundtrack is one of the greatest ever to come from an animated series. Fans even colloquially dubbed the music from the original show “Jazzhop” to emphasize its play on bebop — a kind of small band, fast paced and highly improvised jazz music — with hip hop.
In short, there’s much to love about the original series all these years later; maybe too much.
The live-action remake by Netflix, which was released on Nov. 19, has received mixed reviews from critics and mostly negative reviews from audiences. It stars John Cho of Harold & Kumar as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine. All the actors involved try their best, but it’s clear that bad writing and an extremely annoying attempt to make the show exactly like the original, from plot to sets to the way people act, places way too much restraint on these actors, leaving no room to experiment with the characters and leading to each episode feeling painfully stale most of the time.
Shakir does the best job with what he’s got. His portrayal of Jet is fairly well done, even down to the voice. Faye Valentine, on the other hand, is completely butchered. She was always obstinate in the original series, but in the remake she’s hostile in the most over-the-top ways for no reason. Cho lands somewhere in between, struggling to bring the original Spike’s stoic charm to the character and often ending up giving cringey one-liners. Let’s not even talk about Ed’s live-action portrayal.
It seems like no one learned the lesson that the atrocious 2019 Lion King animated remake taught us: some styles of entertainment just aren’t meant to be translated to a more realistic representation. This goes double for an anime like Bebop, where the animated aspect itself is a major part of what makes the show great. Its exaggerated action is excusable because it can be represented in really interesting ways that bend the expectations of “reality.” What’s clear in this live-action remake right from the first scene of the very first episode during the space casino heist with Spike and Jet, however, is that by trying to pull off those stylish, reality-bending action scenes that marked the distinctness of the original with real people, what you are left with is really stiff choreography during action scenes that are so obviously rehearsed that they become laughable.
Then there’s the issue of cinematography. Again, as a result of trying to stay too true to the original, there are these really awkward close ups. The close ups worked in the original anime because in anime you can express a familiar face in very unique ways by drawing it a little differently, which was the case for the original Bebop. However, the live action’s attempts at these artistic or expressionary close ups on specific characters are at best unnecessary and at worst uncomfortable (‘why are you looking at me like that?’).
Then there’s the canted angles… so many canted angles. It’s true that the original used them, and there they felt appropriate given the speediness of the 20 (ish) minute episodes. But for this remake, which has fifty minute episodes, the constant use of canted angles is so overboard it starts to feel like an amateur high school production or a YouTube parody that’s making fun of itself, but it isn’t.
The creators of this remake should have taken more risks instead of trying to make a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the show. It limits the creative process and that shows in the frigidity and lifelessness of the character interactions throughout all 10 episodes.
This show is only useful if you’re looking for a good hate watch, but then again, that seems like the formula for all of these needless reboots and remakes.