Although I’ve watched plenty of Japanese animation in my time, I’ve never had the occasion to take up Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Cowboy Bebop”, one of the more popular imports to reach the States. “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” is derived from the series of the same name, and I suppose fans of the series could tell you if this feature length film does their beloved series justice. I, on the other hand, cannot.
The movie is about a rag tag team of interstellar bounty hunters that are not so much led by Spike Spiegel, a cool customer with fists of fury, as they are a group of folks who just decided to share a big spaceship as their port of operations. There are actually only three bounty hunters on board: there’s Spike, of course; there’s a big guy with what looks like a metal arm name Jet Black; and the female Faye Valentine, who for some reason dresses in a prostitute get-up that would make Christina Aguilera blush. They also have a computer hacker name Ed, who is actually a very energetic young girl with a dog name Ein — short for Einstein, one supposes.
On a futuristic Mars, the gang goes after a soldier-turned-terrorist name Vincent who, on a quest to right some wrongs, is determined to extinguish all of Mars with a weapon of super duper mass destruction. (Saddam would orgasm over what this guy’s got.) Of course the gigantic reward put on Vincent’s head by the Mars authority, seeking to hush up illegal experiments and the like, has something to do with our bounty hunters taking on the dangerous assignment. Joining the manhunt is government agent Elektra, who has a history with Vincent.
Clocking in at an hour and 50 minutes, “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” feels like a bloated extension of a standard 60-mintue Japanimation mini-movie. To pad out the running time, Shinichiro Watanabe (“The Animatrix”) and company indulges in some extraneous action sequences such as Spike flying around in a ship and getting into a 10-minute dogfight with some military fighter jets. Completely random scenes of mayhem like that is sprinkled throughout “Cowboy Bebop”, and what they have to do with the film’s driving story — the hunt for Vincent — is a total mystery to this viewer.
Not that I completely missed why “Cowboy Bebop” has so many fans. The main character, Spike, is an affable enough fellow. Despite the easygoing attitude and devil may care view on life, Spike proves to be a dangerous foe when the going gets tough. Of note are two vicious hand-to-hand combat sequences between Spike and Vincent. One takes place on a train and the other closes out the film. In both, the animation is so fluid and crisp that you can see every punch, block, and counter punch the two throw at each other. Scenes like that make “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” worth watching.
Alas, the rest of the film is not nearly half as exciting. More than once my mind started to wander, and questions like, “Why does the vast majority of Mars’ citizens drive around in old cars, on freeways, while Spike and company fly around in ships?” Or how about, “Why does Mars look so much like 21st century New York and San Francisco crammed into one indistinguishable melting pot?” Obviously asking such ridiculous questions of an animated movie is silly (you mind as well ask why all rats in Disney movies can sing). Then again, blame my general lack of focus on the script, which meanders from dull plot point to dull plot point. At one point an Indian and a teepee show up to save Spike’s life. On Mars. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.
Anyone familiar with Japanimation expects nothing less than excellent cel drawings, and “Cowboy Bebop” certainly doesn’t disappoint. The overall animation is quite excellent, and the movie’s action scenes look fantastic. Then again, we are talking about the Japanese, from whose animation industry only an average product would deserve mentioning. The soundtrack is also quite good. I’m not sure if this is the case with the series as a whole, but the movie features an entirely retro American pop/jazz soundtrack that is quite pleasing to the ears, not to mention further stretching the movie’s anachronistic vibe.
The script, on the other hand, is docked points for being generic and uninteresting. Granted, it’s just an animated film — a cartoon, if you will — and reality really plays no part in things. Still, I have to wonder why Faye goes around dressing like a tramp (and where exactly does she keep that gun of hers??), and why do out-of-town bounty hunters get to run around Mars shooting people, blowing stuff up, and generally getting average citizens killed left and right? At one point, Spike gets a train full of passengers massacred. Man, this guy is dangerous — for us!
Nevertheless, “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” is a good, mindless action-adventure with one hell of a soundtrack. It’s probably about 30 minutes too long, and the whole thing offers little insight into its characters. I guess when all is said and done, only fans of the series will “get” much of the movie.
Shinichiro Watanabe, Hiroyuki Okiura (director) / Marc Handler, Keiko Nobumoto, Hajime Yatate (screenplay)
CAST: Steven Blum …. Spike Spiegel
Beau Billingslea …. Jet Black
Wendee Lee …. Faye Valentine
Melissa Charles …. Edward (Ed)
Jennifer Hale …. Elektra
Tsutomu Isobe …. Vincent