Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

With a successful run on Cartoon Network and a growing loyal following, Cowboy Bebop has been one of the most successful anime releases in recent memory aimed squarely at the late teen/early 20s market. The 26-episode TV series has gained critical acclaim for its smooth jazz soundtrack, its entertaining if morally relativistic characters, and its blend of sci-fi action with style, style, style. Cowboy Bebop throws us back in the world of renegade bounty hunters, and does so with unexpected class and intelligence. There are problems the film encounters that may mar the experience for some, but the more I reflect on it, the more I enjoy thinking about it.

About 70 years in the future, Spike and Jet are a bizarre pair of bounty hunters willing to take on virtually any manhunt where they can make enough money to stop living off of ramen noodles. They have an on-again off-again relationship with Faye Valentine, a hottie who's in the business of catching criminals for profit too. Faye is on the hunt for a small-time hacker who's supposedly driving a tanker-trailer. She catches up with the truck, but instead of finding her target, she sees a mysterious trench-coated driver. He leaves the transport on a bridge, then strides away moments before it explodes. The chemicals inside the wreckage seem to be some sort of bio-chemical weapon, but the authorities are baffled as to what it is or how to treat its symptoms.

Faye, Spike, and Jet realize that this guy is worth a fortune to the authorities, and so they scour Mars searching for the culprit. However, their quarry, Vincent Volaju, has nothing to lose, and the truck explosion was just a test drive for his ultimate plan. Along with their pint-sized hacker friend Ed, their faithful mutt Ein, and a spunky policewoman named Elektra, the crew must find Vincent before he winds up destroying the planet.

Although Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is not a match for the animation recently seen on the big screen in other anime productions like Spirited Away or Metropolis, there's nothing not to like. Except for a couple of static long shots that felt out of place, everything looks nice, and a few city panoramas just make you go "ahhh". It's better than all but the most impressive animation within the TV series. Meanwhile, Yoko Kanno continued her scoring duties from the small screen. She keeps the jazz score to maybe 20% of the soundtrack, inserting everything from singer-songwriter folk pop to this-side-of-metal into the mix. Although I was disappointed slightly after falling in love with the CD from the series, the mix here is nice, and perhaps a little bit better for a first introduction.

The soundtrack wasn't the only unexpected twist in the film, either. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie plays out like a sci-fi version of a 70s cop thriller along the lines of The French Connection instead of as a non-stop action fest. This means that parts of the movie play out slowly and deliberately, in complete contrast to the kinetic motion of the television incarnation. Fans expecting the non-stop violence of Akira or the mind-blowing energy of the Matrix may certainly be disappointed. Audience members with longer attention spans will get more out of it.

A number of early reviews have smacked on the film's plot being too basic, but that misses the point. The investigation is the important thing, not so much a convoluted storyline. But again, this harkens back to an older era of filmmaking, one not so reliant on something blowing up or crashing every ten minutes. And to relieve any worries, there are several action sequences that are just great. I loved the fantastic sequence on an elevated subway tram, and the martial arts bits with Spike are smile inducing. But they are ingredients in the movie, not the main course in and of itself. I was surprised by this, and at first the film did seem stretched out. The more I thought about how all the parts worked together, though, the more I enjoyed it.

There are a few things that aren't perfect about the film, pacing aside. One is that we really don't have a good feel for the characters from the movie alone. Seeing at least several episodes of the show is essential to be able to hop on board with the story from the first frames. Without that background, Ed makes little sense at all and could almost be a distraction (well, at least more so than she already is). The other characters aren't as well rounded without that back-story as well.

Meanwhile, the second major problem exists for those who have seen the whole series. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that a direct sequel would be darn difficult. Nevertheless, the creators realized their good thing and made the movie anyway. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie skips the nagging problem of the last couple of episodes by positioning itself as, essentially, a two-hour episode somewhere in the late section of the series. However, this also takes away a lot of the potential for dramatic tension. Since we know that the heroes have to survive the film, nothing too extreme can happen. As any regular anime fan can tell you, one of the highlights is the unexpected. Characters can (and often do) die in dramatic action pieces all the time. Here, we don't reach a high enough level of concern for our main characters because, no matter what happens, they are safe within the context of the film. It lessens the impact enough that I can't give it an unqualified A grade, though I don't know how they could have solved the problem otherwise.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie made it to our local theater recently, a couple months ahead of its US DVD release date. It's a big screen film, and I suggest catching it there if you can. Although sub purists might find it an affront, the dub version is excellent, nearly on the same level with Disney's recent dubs of the Miyazaki films. Although I think that Sony has bungled the release of this movie in theatres, seeing that it could have broad appeal outside the art-house rounds it's making, I'm not surprised. Regardless, it's worth the drive.

For those who are concerned about the R rating, don't be. It's a joke. There's more actual blood in Spirited Away! Though there's a brief shot of a woman without a shirt on darkly lit from behind, there's no actual nudity; there's also perhaps six mild profanities throughout the movie. Although the plot has to do with bio-terrorism, any elementary kid watching the news is aware of that nowadays. I have to believe that the MPAA gave this one its rating solely on the fact that because it's animated, parents would expect to take their 3 year olds to see it. It's easily PG-13 in a sane ratings world.

Though it requires some audience patience and isn't as thoroughly engaging as one might wish, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is good, clever animated filmmaking. It's an excellent trip through the Bebop universe, if not the perfect one.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie -- profanity, violence -- A-