Our reviews of Cowboy Bebop Remix 1 (published September 13th, 2005), Cowboy Bebop Remix 2 (published December 22nd, 2005), and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Blu-ray) (published August 8th, 2011) are also available.
"Just a humble bounty hunter, ma'am."—Spike Spiegel
In pursuit of her latest bounty, Faye Valentine stumbles on an act of terrorism: a mysterious explosion releases a nanotechnological pathogen that kills everyone around it. When the Mars government posts a 300 million wulong reward, her sometime-partners Spike Spiegel and Jet Black join the search. Along the way, the bounty-hunting crew of the Bebop—well, if you have watched Cowboy Bebop before, you pretty much know what is going to happen over the course of the next two hours. Spike Spiegel, sensitive ex-mobster, grumbles, gets beaten up and nearly killed, comes back to finish the job. Jet, the former cop, grouses about his partner, then pitches in to help. Faye, who always seems suspiciously underdressed to be doing this kind of rough work, pretends she can hack it on her own, but ultimately needs the others to come bail her out. And Ed Wong, backed by their underused dog Ein, wiggles around like an adolescent gummy worm who dropped the brown acid. Stuff blows up, the characters fly around in their cool ships, and Spike gets some hand-to-hand combat. In the end, they will catch the bad guy (in this case, a rogue government agent whose agenda is pretty much to kill anyone and everyone in the story, and not much else) but end up blowing the reward money. And since Cowboy Bebop: The Movie takes place before the chaotic final episodes of the series, no major revelations or changes to the characters will take place. It will just be a fun ride for a couple of hours.
Cowboy Bebop was never a deep show, hanging together precariously on charm and style. The overall story arc of the series never seemed to clearly go anywhere, its characters never developed, and individual episodes sometimes strained coherence. The greatest mystery in the series was exactly what any of these crazies would continue to work together, much less trust one another. Actually, the greatest mystery was how they managed to survive when they seemed continually incapable of catching enough bounties to pay their basic expenses.
What makes Cowboy Bebop work, its ineffable chemistry that so many other shows have tried to copy with only middling results at best, is its style. Borrowing from film noir, Bebop made cool both its storytelling philosophy (casually indifferent hero-criminals who are always caught between their own skill and their bad luck) and its artistic mantra. Composer Yoko Kanno is probably the key, the show's jazzy beats propelling whatever plot threads the audience can make sense of. But great production design also helps. The future according to Cowboy Bebop has always been sleek, even if its technology and culture are a hodgepodge. And director Shinchiro Watanabe has a strong sense of mise en scène. Any given sequence is visually stunning, even when nothing in particular is happening. Just a puff of cigarette smoke and a shuffling walk. A veil of apathy to cover the hero's moral code. Bebop has the noir aesthetic down pat.
The level of animation in Bebop the Movie is pretty much identical to the television series, and Watanabe tries to give it a slicker, more expensive look with many of the same tricks he used there: "handheld camera" effects, motion blurs during fight scenes, and the like. In fact, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (called Knockin' On Heaven's Door in Japan, although likely Bob Dylan's lawyers did not approve) is basically an extended television episode. This may be both its strongest and weakest aspect. If you liked the series, the movie merely offers you more of the same, only much longer and quite a bit slower.
On the other hand, the film's gravest fault is its lack of ambition. The movie feels as if Shinchiro Watanabe had an extra 30-minute story at the bottom of his file drawer, and since he already had 26 episodes for the series, filed it away until now. Then he just padded it out to four times its proper length for a feature film. The pace is as loose-limbed as the characters: endless sequences of Spike and Faye and Jet (and even Ed this time around) wandering off to investigate, with the story periodically interrupted by a modest but well-staged chase or fight scene.
Still, Columbia throws in about 40 minutes of featurettes full of interviews with both the Japanese and English voice casts. There are some storyboard comparisons, an extensive conceptual art gallery, and "music video" edits of the opening and closing songs. But fans of Cowboy Bebop will come for the movie. On its own terms, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is an entertaining and stylish ride. But compared to the rest of the series, it is just more of the same.
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