Cowboy Bebop is a highly regarded anime series which first aired on television during the late nineties. The show garnered respect from western audiences after being included as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Until only a few years ago I would have ranked Cowboy Bebop as my favourite anime series of all time, and at the time of writing I would still say it is amongst my top five shows in the genre. Two years after the conclusion of the series the movie I am reviewing today (subtitled Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) was released. Canonically speaking the story takes place some time between episodes twenty two and twenty three. This gives the feature the feel of an extended episode as opposed to an epilogue which could have tainted the anime’s finale.
WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE
The feature kicks off with the male members of the Bebop crew taking out some low level hoods who are attempting to rob a convenience store. The opening sequence does a good job of introducing audience members who are not familiar with the series to Jet Black and Spike Spiegel. Jet is a former police officer who has since become a cowboy (aka bounty hunter) after sustaining an injury which cost him his arm (which has since been replaced by a mechanical limb.) His partner Spike used to be part of a criminal syndicate, but when that didn’t work out he changed his career to something more noble. Aside from establishing the characters the scene reminds us what was so good about the show. An entertaining altercation between the cowboys and thieves showcases Spike’s martial arts prowess, sharp shooting skill and witty banter.
If you are not acquainted with the series you could be forgiven for thinking that Cowboy Bebop takes place in present day America, but the film is actually set in the not too distant future (2071 to be exact.) The Martian city which serves as the backdrop to proceedings looks like a modern day U.S city and the populace still dress in apparel you can see walking down the high street today. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door does away with some of the more implausible outer space shenanigans the series would sometimes portray, preferring instead to keep things down to Earth (or Mars as the case may be.) If you eliminate the spacecraft the cast pilot this could well be a regular crime story that wouldn’t cost that much to convert into a live action flick. This may disappoint fans who liked the sci-fi heavy instalments of the show, but on the flip side it helps attract viewers who normally shun away from programmes with cosmic elements.
MAN SHOULDN’T LIVE BY CARBS ALONE; COMPLEX OR OTHERWISE
Once the opening credits roll we get to the meat and potatoes of the story. Gambling addict Faye Valentine is returning to the Bebop after another unlucky session at the horses. Hoping to recoup some of her loses she pursues a lorry which she believes is being driven by a wanted computer hacker. When she catches up with the truck she however finds that the driver isn’t the bounty she is seeking. A shaggy haired, bearded man emerges from the vehicle which a few moments later explodes. The direct blast results in casualties, but more worryingly so, the aftermath sees citizens in the surrounding area begin to suffer from symptoms that point to a virus. The Martian government is understandably worried and therefore posts an astronomical three hundred million wulong bounty for apprehending the perpetrators responsible for unleashing a biological weapon on their city.
Spike and company don’t give the air of being the most professional cowboys in the universe, but the big reward on offer certainly motivates them to investigate the case. The three hundred mill reward would ease their ongoing financial difficulties and would allow them to purchase a more varied menu than the daily ration of instant ramen they have had to endure of late (eating Pot Noodles every single day can certainly get tiresome on the old taste buds.) Faye, assisted by Ed the computer whiz of the group, searches for the hacker who they believe is an accomplice to the bomber. Jet hits his old law enforcement colleagues for leads whilst Spike investigates a pharmaceutical company, with ties to the military, that may be linked to the contagion which was released subsequent to the explosion.
FIRST RULE OF COMBAT – SHOOT THEM BEFORE THEY SHOOT YOU
Most of the movie, which runs for almost two hours, deals with the Bebop team trying to uncover who the bomber is and foil a much bigger attack that could eradicate all life on the planet. The investigation gets a little slow paced in parts, but the screenwriter who penned the script does a fine job of livening things up just when the case starts to get dull. We get comedic moments which lighten the mood and there’s also a number of action sequences which help fight off the tedium created a dry criminal investigation. As in the show the action comes in the form of gunfights and Spike displaying his range of kung-fu maneuvers. I especially enjoyed the part were Spike attempts to escape from a laboratory he infiltrated disguised as a cleaner. At one point action and comedy combine in a duel that sees him wield a broken mop (which reminded me a little of something Jackie Chan would do.) Spectators who enjoyed the show’s spaceship dogfights needn’t worry as they are catered for later in the film when Spike, piloting his Swordfish, has to get away from military jets.
Vincent the villain of the piece deserves a mention as I found him to be a captivating antagonist. His motivations, for the bombings, are never fully explained leaving you to wonder if he is doing it all for revenge or just because he has been driven insane by experiments he suffered during his military days. Whenever he is on screen he grabs your attention as the uneasy calm surrounding him is constantly threatened by his unstable personality. One moment he will sit alone playing solitaire, waxing lyrical about purgatory, and the next moment the peace is shattered when he brutally murders any unfortunate person in the vicinity. He speaks of how his life feels like a dream which harkens back to comments made by Spike, on his own life, during the series. This makes Vincent a good foil for the protagonist. In a manner of speaking they share the same soul, but their confrontations are made all the more interesting by the different way they approach things. Spike lives for the moment and relies of instinct whilst Vincent is more strategic and prefers to plan things ahead. In combat Spike uses graceful martial arts to defend himself unlike Vincent who attacks with strength and brute force.
SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY
Cowboy Bebop is one of my favourite anime shows and this movie ends up being one of my favourite anime films. It gets a solid four stars from me, but it cannot quite elevate itself to attaining a perfect score. However much I enjoyed the film I ultimately found myself enjoying some of the episodes from the show over it. I would have liked to have seen the other characters get more attention as the story focuses mainly on Spike. Faye gets taken out of the picture, for while, in the second half of the movie and Jet spends most of his time mopping on the Bebop about how his companions lack team spirit. Ed is only called in to aid the investigation with her computer wizardry when the story demands it, although that’s alright as she is a comic relief character who can get annoying if overexposed. Granted in the series you would get episodes that concentrate on a particular character over the others, but given the ample running time they had I wished they would have shared out the limelight more evenly.
That complaint aside, I cannot think of any other faults with the piece. The series already looked great and the injection of a bigger budget ramps up the visuals even further. This benefits the gorgeous artwork in the form of greater detail and lifelike fluid animation. Sound wise I have nothing but praise for the soundtrack as well as the English voice cast who did a terrific job. Only the most ardent of anime purists would deny that the dub doesn’t match the quality of the original Japanese audio. If you are a DVD bounty hunter on the trail of entertainment I would advise that you to track down Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. The reward for its capture is close to two hours of excellent animated viewing.