This week, we’re going on a little bit of a digression, but only slightly. After the Cowboy Bebop series ended, it proved to be so popular that the makers were compelled to produce a feature film version of it. Because of the way the series ended, there wasn’t really room to do a movie that followed on afterwards, at least not with all the pieces in place to make fans happy.
So the 2001 feature film, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (alternately known as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door) takes place at some point in between episodes of the series. While it’s never very specific, most fans put it squarely between Sessions 22 and 23, hence, here’s where we’re going to talk about it. And as a feature-length version of the TV show, it pretty much rules.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the best adaptation of a television show to feature film ever made. Serenity comes close, but Bebop has the edge because all of the main creatives of the series were involved: Director Shinichiro Watanabe, writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and composer Yoko Kanno along with her band the Seatbelts. Instead of feeling like a definitive shift in tone or outlook, the film just looks like an episode of the show if they had a huge budget. It fits in perfectly.
The plot centers around the hunt for a dangerous and seemingly unkillable criminal. And as usual, the Bebop crew stumbles across him. Faye Valentine is looking for a petty hacker on Mars and happens to see a truck explode on the highway followed by a long-haired and bearded man walking away from it, apparently unscathed. This explosion results in a virus outbreak which causes almost instantaneous paralysis and death. The man responsible, Vincent Volaju, gets a bounty of 300 million Woolongs placed on his head. Naturally, that’s enough to make the crew take notice. Faye and Spike each attempt to track down this man, with Ed and Jet helping, but they aren’t the only ones out looking.
The company that created the virus in the first place dispatches its best agent, Elektra Ovirowa, to track Vincent down as well. And, of course, Spike quickly develops a thing for Elektra. But, what nobody knows is that Vincent was the victim of an experiment that injected his blood with nanogenes that can rebuild any tissue, making anyone who has it effectively immortal. Only he is immune to the Mars virus as a result. The company doesn’t want the truth to get out, but the further the hunters dig, the more they learn, and hence the deadlier their mission gets, for them AND for Mars.
The first thing this movie does right is not try to make the it about any of the ongoing storylines of the series. There’s nothing about Spike’s time in the Syndicate, nothing about Julia, nothing about Faye or Ed’s pasts, and nothing about Jet being betrayed and lonely. The story and plot are completely standalone. This is good for two reasons: 1) it allows people who’ve never seen the show to come in and know exactly what’s going on, and 2) it doesn’t muddy the waters of the TV show’s continuity, which can be alluring when making a movie adaptation.
The next check in the movie’s win column is, though it doesn’t have those plotlines from the TV show, it does give each of the characters their moment or moments to shine. This is just about two hours long, which would make it a little longer than four TV episodes, so while Spike is certainly the main focus with Faye being a solid second lead, we get to have a jaunt of Ed and Ein out tracking clues in their own weird way and we get Jet’s grumpiness, wishing the crew was more of a cohesive unit, and his saving the day at the last minute. These are all things the show did brilliantly and they translate to the film well. They took the best of each of the characters and put it into one film, giving fans exactly what they’d hope without feeling like anyone was left underdeveloped.
As with a lot of the best TV episodes, they also give us two really interesting “guest” characters in the form of Vincent and Elektra. Vincent is the best sort of villain because he’s got a complicated and compelling history. He didn’t start out as a bad guy at all, but the world, and specifically the people he worked for, let him down, leading to his vengeful desires. He’s also just looking for someone with whom to share it, asking Faye to be that person, though she turns him down flat cuz of the whole murdering millions thing (and the cutting her shirt open with a knife like an utter scumbag).
Elektra is similarly intriguing. She’s got more to her than meets the eye and is drawn to Vincent in a way that’s not entirely known until late in the film. She can more than hold her own against Spike, and they have a great sparring match in a hallway upon their second meeting. At a certain point, both of them are locked up in jail cells and they have really nice conversations about lost loves in their life. Though Spike is attracted to her, he never sees her as anything but an equal, and that’s quite refreshing, especially in a genre known for exploiting the female form (though there is a bit of that here).
As always, Yoko Kanno’s music is a real standout. While some pieces of music do have the upbeat acid jazzyness of a lot of the TV show’s music, she really branches out with a lot of the cues, bringing in elements of Arabian music, heavy metal, pop, and funk. These pieces are wonderful accompaniments to the film’s truly cinematic action set pieces, including a chase on a train, space fighter battles over a packed Martian city, and the final gun-and-fistfight on a tower. It’s another pitch-perfect melding of sound and visuals.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is one of the very best things the makers did, and a very worthy follow-up to the series. I’m convinced that if the makers of any live-action adaptation follow the formula set here, the result will be a movie that hits all the right beats without relying on all the backstory. Just make a movie, don’t worry about establishing a world.
Next week, we return for the final four episodes of Bebop, and that’s when sad times start. First up, we get our one and only Ein-centric episode, which also has a hefty amount of Ed and Jet. It’s “Brain Scratch” coming atcha!