In the year 2071, the bounty hunter crew of the spaceship Bebop, comprising former syndicate member Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet Black, con-artist Faye Valentine, hacker extraordinaire Radical Edward, and the hyper-intelligent corgi Ein, are pursuing a bounty on Mars. Faye is in the middle of tracking the bounty when a mysterious figure triggers a tanker explosion, killing hundreds of people. With fears of a biological weapon involved following the mass hospitalisation of those near the explosion, a massive bounty is placed on the perpetrator. Always short of funds and never ones to shy away from a dangerous job, the crew of the Bebop each begin to investigate the incident in order to track down the perp and unravel the mystery behind their motives.
A pivotal sci fi anime series of the 1990s and a regular entrant on many best anime of all time lists, Cowboy Bebop is a contemplative series of space opera proportions, with the personality and dramatic highs and lows to boot. The series follows the crew of the Bebop through a number of semi-connected adventures as they chase bounties to make enough money to scrape by. What makes Cowboy Bebop so endearing is that most of its core cast comprises a gang of wayward adults who are doing their best to make a living while continuously making bad choices and struggling to let go of their pasts, with an encroaching sense of nothing being able to last forever. This all takes place amidst a beautifully detailed and fleshed out sci fi backdrop that animators invested an incredible amount of time and effort into perfecting.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie was released in 2001, following the completion of the series’ 26 episodes in 1999. The film drops the audience right into the narrative amidst its band of established characters, naturally capturing the essence of Cowboy Bebop – that every Cowboy Bebop story, no matter the genre or narrative drama, is just another day for the crew. Searching for clues (and sometimes stumbling upon them), bounty hunters Spike, Jet, Faye, and Edward (assisted by Ein) pursue their own leads in the search for the culprit of the tanker explosion. Although the movie focuses on Spike and Faye’s (mis)adventures for the most part, each member of the crew gets an opportunity to utilise their bounty hunting skills and contribute to the unravelling of the mystery behind the illness infecting people from the explosion, making for an intriguing mystery that feels pulled straight out of the series. Additionally, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is technically exquisite and visually engaging, with the additional runtime allowing for longer and more in-depth action scenes that let the animators flex their skills. This makes the film a treat for fans and lovers of animation alike.
However, elements of what makes the series work so well sometimes doesn’t translate well to film. Cowboy Bebop episodes are generally short and sharp explorations of concepts or genres, with style and intrigue packed into around 24 minutes. These episodes are perfectly paced for a taste of these concepts and world-building, providing just the right amount for the audience to become invested, but not lost in, the thesis for the individual episodes. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie clocks in at 115 minutes, the combined length of almost five episodes, and it honestly feels its length. No longer sharp and punchy like its predecessor series, the movie suffers from having an intriguing concept that feels like it could have come straight out of Cowboy Bebop but carrying the weight (pun intended) of needing to create five times the amount of content for that concept. The result is a movie that feels like it is trying to fill time rather than follow the natural flow and rhythm of its narrative, which is jarring from a series that has such a great command of natural flow and pacing.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie also feels somewhat divorced from the series visually. While the series leans into its sci-fi setting with an abundance of spaceships and a visual melting pot of an aesthetic that I can only describe as a combination of 90s, film noir, and retro futuristic visuals across a number of planets and locations, the movie is altogether more modern in comparison. The movie may take place on Mars, but the backdrop is unmistakably New York with a couple of different monuments added for flavour, resulting in the film feeling as if it is taking place on modern Earth for a majority of its runtime. This leads to the handful of times that the titular Bebop is shown, or a character is up in space feeling a bit jarring. One can almost forget the film is based on a sci fi series at times, which isn’t a bad thing given the amount of genre hopping that the series tends to do, but it is certainly an interesting choice in direction. I get the sense that perhaps Cowboy Bebop: The Movie was made to attract an audience that wasn’t necessarily familiar with Cowboy Bebop as a whole, sanding off the series’ more characteristic edges (i.e., space opera genre and its futuristic aesthetic) for a smoother viewing experience and to focus on the tanker explosion mystery. It makes sense to appeal to a broader audience, but I can’t help but feel that in doing so the film lost some of its charm and personality, creating an altogether less interesting world for the Bebop crew to kick around in.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie has the advantage of being basically a movie length version of an episode in the series, with all the visual splendour and introspection the series has to offer dialled up for a feature film release. To its detriment, the film is a movie length version of an episode in the series, dragging out a premise meant for a short and sharp 24 minutes into something longer than it can necessarily sustain. That being said, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is still a fun return to endearing characters and concepts that make for an enjoyable watching experience for fans and newcomers alike.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.