Cowboy Bebop review – a slick and spirited slice of TV cyberpunk

John Cho stars in Netflix’s brilliantly amped-up live-action update of the anime classic, which offers madcap mayhem with an anything-goes feel

While propping up the bar at a gaudy sex club on Mars, a rakish bounty hunter improbably named Spike Spiegel (John Cho) locks eyes with his current target: a murderous, anxious thief. The self-amused hero has an ice-cool opening line ready to go. “We can do this the easy way, or the fun way,” purrs Spiegel. The outcome involves a frantic foot chase, a rooftop fight and a memorable moment with a gigantic provocative billboard.

Doing things “the fun way” seems to have been the mission statement for this live-action adaptation of a 1998 Japanese anime series, made with the blessing of its original creator Shinichirō Watanabe. But even if you were unaware of Cowboy Bebop’s animated origins it might not take long to twig that this 10-part series was inspired by an exuberant cartoon. The 2021 version is a fast-talking, visually amped-up space western that feels stylised and swaggering to near saturation, powered by the same jazz freakout soundtrack that helped make the original an enduring cult hit.

It is set in a vibrant but messy sci-fi future, precariously built on top of the technological and pop-culture clutter of now. An unspecified disaster on Earth has pushed humankind out into the local cosmos, creating a new galactic frontier. There are space station casinos and gleaming cyberpunk cities but also countless rickety towns and dusty outposts on far-flung moons (the series was shot in New Zealand and often looks appropriately otherworldly). An excess of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells in these hardscrabble places has made bounty hunting a popular occupation. Freelance “cowboys” bring in villains – dead or alive – for a reward, just like in the old west.

Spiegel is a gifted sharpshooter and martial arts master. His imposing partner Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) is a tough-as-nails former cop with a metal arm. By rights, they should be elite bounty hunters. Yet, owing to bad luck and questionable personal decisions, the pair are constantly on the back foot.

They struggle to keep their heads above water even before sharp-tongued rival Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) gatecrashes their clunky amphibious spaceship, the Bebop. Perhaps because of hunger, the mood on board the Bebop is usually irritable or sarcastic. The verbal fencing among the trio is almost manic – the ship’s breakout space even has a sitcom-ready scuffed yellow couch.

But all three voyagers also have painful secrets that threaten to overwhelm the present. Spike has a complicated history with ashen-haired gang- enforcer Vicious (Alex Hassell) and songbird moll Julia (Elena Satine). Most episodes involve the Bebop crew chasing down larger-than-life criminals – including hardline eco-terrorists, killer clowns and a deranged bomber in an oversized teddy bear mask – with the prospect of a confrontation between the laconic Spike and the cruel Vicious bubbling just below the surface.

Maintaining such a heightened, madcap tone is a high-wire act that relies on the charisma of the three leads. Shakir, formerly a menacing heavy in Netflix’s Luke Cage series, is gruff but convincingly big-hearted as the ex-cop who dotes over a daughter he rarely sees. Pineda’s Faye is an entertainingly dismissive motormouth who reveals emotional depths as the season unfolds.

Both have excellent chemistry with Cho, an actor who radiated decency as Sulu in the recent Star Trek movies and uptightness in the Harold and Kumar franchise, but has rarely been given the chance to play the coolest person in the room. Here, he finds an insouciant, playful groove, and the commitment of his physical performance goes beyond hand-to-hand combat training. He has also mastered Spike’s languid anime gait, hands parked in the pockets of an angular blue suit that would not look out of place on a Duran Duran album cover.

There is a fine tradition of futuristic shows inventing swear words, notably Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” and Firefly’s “gorram”. Cowboy Bebop sticks to more familiar curses. Such unvarnished swearing and occasional scenes of nudity mean that despite the poppy colours and energetic action, this is not a series that the whole family can watch (unlike The Mandalorian, that other tale of hunting bounties and forming ad hoc families on the fringes of civilisation). But it all adds up to an enjoyable feeling of anything-goes delirium. At a time when popular sci-fi has gone gritty and self-consciously “dark”, the caffeinated fever dream of Cowboy Bebop feels like a loving distillation of the original and a breath of fresh air.

Cowboy Bebop is on Netflix from 19 November; the original anime can be streamed on Netflix, Amazon Prime and All 4