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Cowboy Bebop (2001)
Director: Shinichiro Watanabi

review by Amy Harlib

The same experienced and successful helmers, writers and English voice talent that made the Japanese anime, science fiction TV series Cowboy Bebop (also a widely selling manga book), so popular, bring the same expertise to the feature film version Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (aka: Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door). Director Shinichiro Watanabe, collaborating with mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto and scripter Keiko Nobumoto, conjure up a dazzling yet noir-ish future milieu rich in intricate detail and with a gripping, character-driven story brought to life with gorgeous animation - skilfully and fluidly paced.

Cowboy Bebop, set in 2071 on an incredibly terraformed Mars in the highly cosmopolitan Alba City, (a fascinating polyglot incarnation of New York, Paris, and Mittel Europa with a huge Moroccan enclave), gets its title from the lead characters. They consist of a team of roguish bounty hunters: Spike Spiegel (Steven Jay Blum) the informally acknowledged leader, cool on the surface, emotionally troubled inside; the tough-looking yet kind-hearted, ex-cop, cyborg Jet Black (Beau Billingslea); the spunky, voluptuous, Amazon-like Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee); and the precocious, eccentrically behaved and named teenaged girl computer hack-meister Edward Wong-hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV (Melissa Charles) - Ed for short. These compelling protagonists enjoy the companionship and considerable aid of a bioengineered, intellectually enhanced Pembroke Welsh Corgi called Ein (a nod to Albert Einstein) while they travel the solar system looking for gigs aboard their patched-together space vehicle, The Bebop.

Taking place a few episodes before the conclusion of the TV series, the picture opens with a literal 'bang', establishing style and characters as Spike Spiegel and Jet Black stop a convenience store robbery through a combination of cleverness and improvised mayhem. Typically for them, they're barely managing to get by in deed and in recompense. Shortly after this beginning prologue, while Spike and Jet mull over their near impoverishment, we find Faye, hot on the trail of a petty cyber-criminal named Lee Sampson (Dave Wittenberg). On the verge of nabbing her quarry in his hijacked chemical truck, Faye observes the vehicle in question - explode! From the ensuing conflagration, there emerges an uncannily unscathed, tall, dark man with long, black hair and a grim visage who walks away whilst hundreds of folks nearby the explosion soon die from a hitherto unknown sickness.

This unusual and dramatically dangerous incident gets all of the Bebop crew interested in Faye's bounty, their sleuthing efforts establishing that the blow-up was not a vagary of fate but a deliberate act of terrorism that let loose a deadly micro-organism. The mystery man turns out to be Vincent Volaju (Daran Norris), a soldier who, several years earlier, while being a test subject for an experiment on Titan, presumably died. The protagonists also uncover a vast conspiracy involving a pharmaceutical company with a dubious record; a military cover-up; and civilian, bureaucratic corruption. Joining the quest to discover how everything connects together is corporate agent Elektra (Jennifer Hale), a tough gal martial arts expert later revealed to have a startling tie to Vincent. She and Spike develop an odd and prickly fondness for each other after she kicks his butt!

Leading to the dynamic conclusion during a colourful Halloween parade, Cowboy Bebop treats the viewer to an array of: thriller-type plotting; martial arts movement rivalling any in a live-action Hong Kong picture; adroit cinematography using every trick in the book; vibrant and varied urban backgrounds; tense drama leavened by wry humour; and snappy dialogue conveying well-developed, dimensional characterisation for the heroes and the antagonists. The film also deals with provocative ideas concerning nanotechnology, bio-terrorism, personal identity and memory, and rivalry between different government departments. Everything gets cleverly sprinkled with references to old genre westerns; noir crime capers; cyberpunk SF; and even Star Wars type aerial dogfights in turn riffing off World War II sources. Yoko Kanno's lively, jazzy score perfectly complements the proceedings and justifies the title.

A gorgeous genre mix of an adventure, Cowboy Bebop offers an exciting and thoughtful entertainment (albeit sometimes violent and bloody in a few places necessitating an 'R' rating) that proves once again that anime can be a viable sophisticated art form for mature discerning audiences looking for fun with substance. Although released only briefly in limited art house distribution where Cowboy Bebop's science fiction glory could be appreciated on the big screen, the readily available DVD still makes it possible for this exciting anime treat to get the accessibility it deserves.
Cowboy Bebop

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