The trouble with American action movies and animation, so the story goes, is that they pander to their audiences shamelessly, pursuing teenage males and young kids, with little mind towards theme, pushing boundaries, and so forth. Fans of Japanese animation, or anime, will point out how successful movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell have been at just that: combining action and animation with decidedly more adult content. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a typical anime mix of action, sci-fi, and philosophy, and like a lot of anime, it’s not quite as advanced as some might like to believe.
As its title implies, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is the film version of a television series, concerning a ragtag group of bounty hunters on Mars in the future. Spike (English language voice by David Lucas) is the young, reckless male lead who looks a bit like one of The Strokes; Jet Black(Beau Billingslea) is the older, gruff one; Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee) is the strong young woman; and Ed (Melissa Charles) is the irritating little hacker girl who would’ve been at home on, say, Speed Racer or Pokemon, but seems perversely out of place in a futuristic action movie.
Cowboy Bebop‘s story, yet another in which nanotechnology will determine the fate of the world, is easier to follow than some anime, although it still manages to confuse. Why, for example, do some of the characters not know what nanotechnology is? Haven’t they ever seen any 21st century thrillers? At times, though, Cowboy Bebop displays a keen interest in pop culture. One character plays a Pacman-style videogame, enraptured with its simplicity; others watch a black and white Western at some sort of hover-car drive-in; and one chase scene begins, rather auspiciously, in a video arcade. This future isn’t outlandish or gimmicky, and the filmmakers’ attention to detail, both visual and cultural, gives the Mars city a tangible depth. It’s one of cinema’s future worlds, like the recent Minority Report, that seems plausible, not just eye candy.
Still, there is eye candy. Cowboy Bebop, like a lot of Japanese animation, possesses the visual rhythm of a comic book, but with more accuracy than most: The combination of stillness and sharp, choppy action are remarkably close to what it actually looks like to read comics. Indeed, the best parts of the movie are several spectacular chases, showdowns, and escapes. The rest of the movie isn’t devoid of feeling; the characters are not particularly memorable, but they’re granted a certain humanity that refreshingly eschews self-conscious attitude. Spike is not unlike many other wisecracking daredevil heroes, but his slickness is never shoved down anyone’s throat. A montage shows him questioning villagers, and he pauses from his detective work to horse around with some local boys. This is not a movie that revels in its own coolness.
It does, however, linger on its half-baked “themes” long enough to slow a potentially enjoyable 90-minute movie into a scattered two hour one. Spike, Kaye, and Jet are separated for much of the movie, and they lose track of each other’s subplots, especially during long scenes in which the script trots out tired sci-fi questions about memory, sanity, identity, and dreams. The mysterious villain of the piece is a soldier without real memories, but the movie explains this in quietly ponderous scenes of pre-mayhem brooding.
Primarily through its mopey villain, Cowboy Bebop is yet another movie that reminds us to “question reality” (à la The Matrix), even if the film itself never gives satisfactory reasons for the question. Nothing here suggests how the lines between dreams and reality might blur. In place of anything concrete, many dialogue scenes in the film’s midsection conjure a quasi-mysticism that seems to belong in something more thoughtful, like Spirited Away. That movie felt like a dark fairy tale attuned with nature; Cowboy Bebop goes spiritual by stopping the gunplay while characters get all misty-eyed over otherworldly butterflies. For anime fans bored with Disney animation and Vin Diesel action, that may be enough; some more discerning audiences might prefer the more exciting, less pretentious stuff.
It’s possible that the half-baked spirituality was once cooked all the way through; maybe something was lost in the transition to U.S. movie screens. Certainly the dubbing in English is to blame for some overemphasized delivery, but the dialogue is so hit-and-miss that it’s difficult to tell if the problem was the actors, the translation, or the original script. Whatever caused the verbal inconsistency, Cowboy Bebop‘s metaphors are far more effective when they stick to visuals. When characters talk about “the world” (meaning Mars) being akin to purgatory, it’s clichéd; when a final showdown is atop a tower in front of a hellish-orange sky, it’s striking.
So, in the end, Cowboy Bebop goes flabby with generic ambition to provoke thought. It has the plot of an engaging, stylish action movie, but the pitiable soul of a second-rate philosophy major.