Since it originally aired on Japanese TV in 1998 – 99, before crossing over to the U.S. several years later, Cowboy Bebop has become quite the cult phenomena, and it’s easy to see why. The series truly has a style all its own, taking a story about bounty hunters straight out of the Old West and setting it smack dab in the middle of the 21st century. There’s something incredibly familiar about the series — after all, there’s nothing new about bounty hunters — but it also has a very unique and exotic feel to it, due in no small part to the series’ rich cultural and ethnic details.
Fans of the series will be right at home, then, with Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, which takes place between episodes 22 and 23 of the series. Perhaps too much so. If you’ve watched the series, much of the movie will feel like an extended episode, as it follows the usual rhythm of a Bebop episode. However, the movie does strike a darker, grimmer tone, even with Spike’s lackadaisical attitude intact throughout.
While tracking down a hacker on Mars, Faye Valentine crosses paths with a mysterious man in black. But before she can react, an explosion tears through the city, releasing a thick cloud of smoke that kills and sickens hundreds. The authorities are unable to come up with anything, so they post a huge bounty on the terrorist(s). Of course, this attracts the attention of our motley and dysfunctional crew: Spike Spiegel, a Bruce Lee acolyte with a devil-may-care attitude; the long-suffering and stodgy Jet Black; Valentine, a femme fatale with a gambling problem; Ed, the goofy hacker kid; and Ein, a Welsh Corgi with a strange affinity for computers.
As they dig deeper into the case, they soon discover they’ve bitten off more than they can probably chew. No mere terrorist act, the explosion leads them to a cover-up involving phantom medical companies, an illegal weapons program, and a crazed ex-soldier/military guinea pig named Vincent. Not only do Spike and Co. have to deal with the military silencing anyone who comes close to the truth, but they also butt heads with Elektra, an agent who is as beautiful as she is lethal, and who has a mysterious connection with Vincent.
Anyone not familiar with the series is going to be in for one wild ride, and even those who have seen the series will find themselves a bit breathless at times. To director Shinichiro Watanabe’s credit, he manages to take the energy you find in the best Cowboy Bebop episodes and extend it to fill a full-length motion picture. The slower moments of the movie contain plenty of the series’ offbeat charm, be it from the characters’ interactions, Ed and Ein’s goofy antics, or Spike’s nonchalance. Some nods and in-jokes are also thrown in, stuff that fans will get it a kick out of, such as the grizzled trio of cantankerous prospectors, and an episode of “Big Shot!” (a show for bounty hunters).
But the action is where it’s at, and the movie delivers plenty of it with no less than 5 amazing action sequences sprinkled throughout its length. From the opening scene where Spike and Jet take out a group of robbers (which quickly establishes Spike’s badass-ness for any initiates) to some thrilling aerial combat involving Spike’s “Swordfish 2” to Spike and Vincent’s intense and brutal showdown in the rain, Watanabe knows what the viewers want to see, and he gives it to them in spades.
However, Watanabe also weaves in some nice character moments throughout the film. Spike and Elektra have the movie’s “deepest” moment, as they reveal to each other the demons of their past. And in Vincent, Spike discovers his dark doppelgänger, the person he might become if he lets himself slip too far into violence (though I find myself wishing their “relationship” had been emphasized a bit more). Almost all of the major characters have a shining moment or two. The one notable exception is Jet, who spends most of his time rolling his eyes at Spike’s attitude or complaining about everyone’s lack of responsibility. In a sense, he’s always been the conscience the others never seem to have, but I wish he would’ve done something other than sit around the ship and pout.
The animation, courtesy of BONES (RahXephon, Wolf’s Rain) never disappoints. Ever. The action sequences are simply flawless. Spike and Vincent’s duels easily hold their own with any of the martial arts mayhem in The Matrix Reloaded, and I found myself grinning from ear to ear during Spike’s fighting/flirting with Elektra. However, that might’ve had more to do with Spike’s charm than his fists. The aerial combat involving Spike’s Swordfish II will likely have Macross Plus fans giggling like little schoolgirls.
The world that makes up the movie is incredibly diverse, a melting pot of cultures. While searching for clues, Spike spends much of his time in a Moroccan bazaar, and the animation and artwork lend it a suitably exotic air. There are also scenes that are simply beautiful to behold, be it the Bebop coming in for a watery landing, the sun rising above a mist-covered city, or the beautiful, golden butterflies (just trust me on that one). These scenes, as well as the character moments, are nice to have if only to give the viewer a chance to catch their breath before the movie throws another roundhouse their way.
Of course, Yoko Kanno’s music is there every step of the way. It’s never noticeable, but I cannot imagine Cowboy Bebop without her score. Sadly, the series’ opening theme, the boisterous and jazzy “Tank,” never makes an appearance. That’s a crying shame because “Tank” is one of the greatest themes of all time, anime or otherwise, and really captures the energy and vibe of the show.
Take all of the aforementioned ingredients, throw in heaps and heaps of style and sass, a well-done dub (I’ve always loved Steven Jay Blum’s turn as Spike), cook over high heat, and you’ve got one rip-snortin’ ride. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is easily one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year, easily holding its own with any of the big summer blockbusters. It’s already out on DVD, but you need to see it on the big screen if you truly want to experience the world of Cowboy Bebop in all of its raucous, exhilarating charm.