REVIEW: カウボーイビバップ 天国の扉 [Kaubōi Bibappu: Tengoku no Tobira] [Cowboy Bebop: The Movie] [2001]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes
    Release Date: September 1st, 2001 (Japan) / April 4th, 2003 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment / Destination Films / Samuel Goldwyn Films
    Director(s): Shin’ichirô Watanabe
    Writer(s): Keiko Nobumoto / Hajime Yatate (story)

I try not to think.

It was supposed to be a quick bounty hit on the way home from the horse track for Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee). When she got her ship in position to apprehend the mark (Dave Wittenberg‘s Lee Sampson), however, someone else exited the vehicle instead (Daran Norris‘ Vincent Volaju). Not only that, but this mysterious man also went all action movie by calmly walking away as said truck exploded behind him. The chaos causes Faye to high tail it out of there knowing the return on the bounty wasn’t worth the trouble (even if her comrades have been eating Cup Noodles for three days straight). She didn’t therefore realize that the fire was just a catalyst. Some sort of bio-terror weapon was also unleashed—one scientists simply can’t understand.

Pair that sequence with an opening pitting Spike Spiegel (Steve Blum) and Jet Black (Beau Billingslea) against a trio of two-bit convenience store thieves and it’s easy to see Shin’ichirô Watanabe really upped the ante on カウボーイビバップ 天国の扉 [Kaubōi Bibappu: Tengoku no Tobira] [Cowboy Bebop: The Movie]. His television show was only off-air for a couple years, but fans and sponsors alike were clamoring for more. Since he had already conceived of the Vincent character during “Cowboy Bebop”, he got the ball rolling on this follow-up with screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (from a story by Hajime Yatate) straight away. Well, its narrative is less a follow-up than continuation, fitting between episodes twenty-two and twenty-three of the original twenty-six.

While you don’t need to know the show to jump on-board, it definitely helps since no real backstory about the characters (rounded out by Melissa Fahn‘s child hacker Ed) is provided here. All we need to know for the purposes of this plot is that they are bounty hunters and very hungry. So, anyone wondering if an act of terrorism is a bit outside their wheelhouse both logistically and ambitiously, know that a reward of three hundred million Woolongs can kick even these slackers into action. And since Faye was there when it all went down, they have an advantage. She saw Vincent, Ed can track Lee, and Jet’s old police buddies can keep them apprised of any developments. That leaves Spike going lone wolf on a lead.

Everything you love about the series is here, but bigger where production is concerned. Rather than a fist fight or space chase per episode, you’re getting three or four of each as the team inevitably gets too close without a full grasp on the situation. It’s not therefore just about Jet feeling abandoned on the Bebop as he waits for his friends to return without calling. I’m talking about characters being mortally wounded and kidnapped once the threat they face moves beyond the scope of mob syndicates and the law. The tone is thus more severe than usual as a result—the existential burden of dreams and morality playing a much bigger role than comedic gags (a massive shift considering episode twenty-two was about a rich idiot cowboy).

The conspiracy here goes deeper. It needs to if it’s going to pad a two-hour runtime. Lee’s hacker is just one aspect. Vincent’s terrorist another. Add a malicious pharmaceutical company willing to assassinate its own to keep their bottom-line intact and a top agent willing to let her heart and morality remind her the cost of doing so is too great (Jennifer Hale‘s Electra Ovirowa) and the twists and turns multiply so that each of the four main characters can enjoy their own dramatic plot threads en route to a conclusion demanding all hands-on-deck to save themselves and human life on Mars. Spike’s pride and Faye’s ambition put both at risk throughout while also ensuring they see things to the end, ultimately bolstering their respective egos.

Because they are antiheroes when all is said and done. They do this job for profit and excitement. Jet, ever the pragmatist, even tries to get them to walk away as things escalate. The moments Spike is beaten-up and Faye is tricked, however, are the moments where both double-down. Their trademark sarcasm is thus pushed aside for a greater sense of purpose (not completely, mind you), leaving much of the humor to Ed and her wild antics. By doing so, Watanabe and company can maintain the darker headspace necessary to delve into who Vincent and Electra are, exposing that they too are complex characters who aren’t one-hundred percent evil. So many of this franchise’s villains are pawns to a corrupt system and this longer adventure is no different.

While the narrative proves compelling enough to hold our interest, don’t expect any progression of the underlying mythology. This is a self-contained mission. The main draw therefore remains the animation. There’s a lot of talk about Watanabe moving to a live-action sense of mise-en-scène, so the step up in that regard is obvious. The characters themselves and world they inhabit, however, stay consistent to the style and settings we’re used to—courtesy of many original crewmembers moving with the series creator to the feature film. The addition of a “Morocco Street” adds some Middle Eastern flavor (for better or worse) and the decision to make the big bad a capitalistic corporation proves a nice change of pace too. We’re exploring a new part of space with old friends.

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