Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (2001) – It’s the Great Pumpkin, Spike Spiegel

“Man shouldn’t have to live on carbohydrates alone, complex or otherwise.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: Two-and-a-half out of four space cowboys.

Sitting Duck’s review: Some of you may have heard that a live action version of Cowboy Bebop is scheduled to premiere on Netflix this month. Can’t say that I’m all that enthused. Though I enjoyed the original series, this reimagining gives the impression that it’ll focus on the Spike/Vicious/Julia background. In my experience, Cowboy Bebop was at its best in the standalone episodes. The ones that delved into Spike’s past with Vicious and Julia had some of the most tedious and cliché storytelling. But in today’s streaming television landscape, multi-episode narratives have become the norm. So I guess it would be inevitable that the showrunners would zero in on that aspect. However, before you go off and binge away, let’s look back at the theatrical release film from 2001.

But before we get into that, a little primer on TV anime in movie form. These sorts of adaptations come in four broad categories. There are the prequels featuring events from before the series proper, such as the first four movies in the Slayers franchise. There are those that completely reimagine the storyline of the series, like that Gawdawful Escaflowne movie. There are the ones that serve as an epilogue to the series, as Conqueror of Shamballa did for Fullmetal Alchemist. But probably the most common are the sidequest movies, which take place at some point in the show’s narrative. The obvious advantage is that it can appeal to both the established fanbase and newbies, especially if the exposition is handled in a deft fashion. However, the chief drawback is that viewers know the core characters will never be in genuine peril.

In this respect, the movie gets off to a good start by introducing bounty hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black as they collar some hoodlums during the prologue. Along with a following scene in which the twosome are playing shogi, it firmly establishes in an unobtrusive way that Spike is the Martin Riggs to Jet’s Roger Murtaugh.

From this point, it plays out rather like an episode of the show, though with higher stakes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I noted earlier, Cowboy Bebop is at its best doing standalones. There also isn’t much need here for complex backstory, meaning it’s unnecessary to shovel on massive gobs of awkward exposition to get the newbies up to speed.

As per usual, the crew of the Bebop are low on cash and subsisting on instant ramen. An opportunity to improve their fortunes occurs when a tanker truck in the city where they’re currently docked explodes and spreads what appears to be an unidentified biological agent. To encourage the apprehension of the culprit, the government offers an unprecedented three hundred million woolong bounty, an amount that might put a dent in Faye’s crippling gambling debts. As the crew digs deeper, they find themselves mixing with a sketchy pharmaceutical company, the nanotech weapon they’ve developed, and a mentally unstable ex-soldier who has gotten ahold of it and intends to release it on Halloween for a particularly nasty trick.

Watching it again, it holds together a lot better than I recall. There are a couple of iffy moments, such as how Spike’s legwork montage comes across as something of a handwave for the sake of advancing the plot. But these instances are the exception. In particular, scenes like the one where Jet meets with his police contact Bob are far less superficial than my memory had painted them.

Of the various new characters featured, the ones who matter are Vincent (the above-mentioned ex-soldier) and Electra (one of Vincent’s former squad mates who works security at the pharmaceutical company). With Vincent, the portrayal of his insanity could have easily been mishandled with hammy antics. Thankfully, what we get is far more low-key and understated. Here we have a man so detached from reality as to be unable to discern between it and dreaming. As a result, life for him is eternal suffering. Through logic that makes sense to him, the only way to end it is to kill a massive number of people on Halloween. The climatic fight between him and Spike is also pretty sweet.

Electra is another matter. Let’s not mince words. Electra is boring, little more than an off-the-shelf Action Girl with no distinguishing traits. Matters aren’t helped by her straying dangerously close to Faux Action Girl territory. Maybe if the script had gone through an additional draft, she could have been a viable character. As it is, she’s kind of a Load.

Of particular note is the music, which has always been an important aspect of Cowboy Bebop. A wide variety of music genres are employed to great effect, with many a catchy tune. Alas, it’s not perfect, with the one fly in the ointment being the opening credits song. Not only are the music and lyrics ear grating, but the animation that accompanies it looks like someone took some random footage of New York City and rotoscoped it.

As often occurs with big screen adaptations of television shows, an attempt is made to squeeze in as many side characters and other nods to the show continuity as possible. The results are what you might call mixed. The best by far are the two cameos by Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim, who are always more than welcome. The low point is the nod to Julius, which is just awkward and embarrassing.

The biggest issue is that the movie is an extended Spike episode. Now having a television episode that focuses on a specific character is fine. The next episode can always switch to someone else or the relationship between two characters. But in the case of a movie adaptation, it really should be an ensemble piece. Instead, the bulk of the action goes to Spike. Jet spends most of his time on the ship. Ed gets one good scene (featuring some very Vince Guaraldi-style music in the soundtrack) and not much else. Meanwhile, Faye is in bondage for a lengthy period of time.

Though individually tiny, the flaws do accumulate, and the runtime is perhaps lengthier than it should be (I for one would excise the superfluous air battle). Even so, it proves effective as an extended episode that is newbie friendly, making it a good entry point for the series proper should you choose to use it in such a fashion.

Didja notice?

  • The point in the series when this occurs is between “Cowboy Funk” (as Andy from that episode can be seen in the parade kitted up as a samurai) and “Brain Scratch” (as Big Shot is still on the air).
  • Vincent’s appearance is based on Bob Dylan. In the English dub, he’s voiced by Daran Norris. That’s right, Cliff McCormack of Veronica Mars.
  • Electra’s appearance is based on Gina Gershon.
  • A curious change from the television series. Originally, the Martian sky is shown as being red even in the terraformed areas. However, the sky is now blue in the terraformed areas and red outside.
  • Thanks to the larger budget, the firearms are detailed enough that they can be identified by sight. Spike uses a IMI Jericho 941, Jet a Walther P99, and Vincent a Strayer Voigt Infinity. Faye’s sidearm is a Glock 30, while the submachinegun she uses at the weather control center is a Heckler & Koch MP5K.
  • The three geezers Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim are named after bossa nova musician Antonio Carlos Jobim
  • The movie Jet and Bob are watching at the drive-in is High Noon.

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