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The Baltimore Sun

Movie review: 'Cowboy Bebop'

Special to the Tribune

The graphic, boldly stylized brand of Japanese animation known as Anime has a great many virtues, including a thrilling visual style and an adult sensibility - qualities displayed in "Cowboy Bebop," Shinichiro Watanabe's feature-length adaptation of his wildly popular television series.

With his collaborators - mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane and character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto - Watanabe fashions a spectacular universe dense with character and elaborate detail. The movie's vivid sense of flow and movement create a hypnotic rhythm and fluid pace. Set in the year 2071 on Mars' Alba City (a cool amalgam of New York, Paris, Berlin and Algiers) the movie shrewdly blends science fiction and neo-noir.

In this English-dubbed version, Watanabe steeps his story in film history, rummaging through works such as "Shane," "Blade Runner" and Chris Marker's legendary French film "La Jetee" (the source material for Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys"). Like the Marker film, "Cowboy Bebop" is drenched in memory and dreams. The title references a vagabond group of four bounty hunters led by Spike Spiegel (voiced by Steven Jay Blum), the cyborg Jet Black (Beau Billingslea), Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee) and computer expert Edward Wong (Mellisa Fahn).

Their mission is to thwart a bio-terrorism plot orchestrated by an elite commando, Vincent Volaju (Daran Norris), who was the subject of some illegal experiments carried out by a nefarious pharmaceutical company. The film's other significant character, Elektra (Jennifer Hale), is a corporate officer linked to Volaju's erased past, who becomes Spike's unlikely ally.

In "Cowboy Bebop," the camera has a rapid forward momentum and all-encompassing sweep. From the opening scene - a botched convenience store robbery - Watanabe reveals a dazzling imagination and creates a dynamic visual style based on movement and the characters' expressions. This movie blends the exotic (with passages set in Morocco) and a joyous arrangement of color and physical objects.

For all of the movie's berserk, slam-bang energy, Watanabe and screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto ground it in a melancholy register. Volaju is a man whose life and memory have been stripped from him. There is a sublime segment, a burst of recovered memory, of Volaju recalling the moonscapes on the planet Titan, where he was killed during the second war there. The final triangulated confrontation involving Volaju, Spike and Elektra carries a vivid sense of grief and loss.

At nearly two hours, "Cowboy Bebop" is longer than necessary, and some of the eccentric characterizations (especially that of Edward, the female hacker) become monotonous. Still, this is magnetic, beautiful stuff.

3 stars (out of 4) "Cowboy Bebop"
Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe; written by Keiko Nobumoto; story by Hajime Yatate; produced by Yutaka Maseba, Haruyo Kanesaku; character design by Toshihiro Kawamoto; mechanical design by Kimitoshi Yamane; set design by Shiho Takeuchi; animation direction by Toshihiro Kawamoto; music by Yoko Kanno. A production of Sunrise, Bones and Bandai Visual; released by Independent Distribution Partners; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. In dubbed English. Running time: 1:56. No MPAA rating (violence, language, sexual material, adult content).
Voices of:
Spike - Steven Jay Blum
Jet Black - Beau Billingslea
Elektra - Jennifer Hale
Faye - Wendee Lee
Edward - Mellisa Fahn
Vincent - Daran Norris

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