In the 21st century, money still makes the world go round, but much of the world is on Mars now, and it’s not dollars but oolong credits that people break their backs for. Meat is scarce and crime abounds.

A convenience store is held up at gunpoint by a gang with fire in their eyes. The leader takes a self-indulging moment to point out the irony of the situation to his victim, how he used to be an employee of the very security system that protects the store, but they laid him off and “Now I’m a thief.” The thief’s false sense of security backfires when a Walkman-wearing customer ignores the men with weapons, starts shopping, then pulls out his guns to save the day. A rescued old woman asks, “What are you?” Her savior replies, “Just a humble bounty hunter, ma’am.”

Their taste in gadgets and music may change with the times, but cowboys will never go away, and in the year 2071 they take the form of bounty hunters trying to make an honest oolong for an occasional hunk of meat in their ramen. Spike Spiegel, our hero, is one of them and lives on the good spaceship Bebop with his bounty-hunting buddies — Jet Black, the grumbling, rough-edged but soft-hearted ex-cop; the voluptuous Faye Valentine, equipped with a stack only believable in outer space; Ed, the comic-relief, rubbery-limbed, computer-hacking teen genius; and Ein, the Shogi-playing wonder data-dog. All is bounty hunting as usual, until Faye runs into trouble following a mark’s truck. The chase blows up in her face, killing hundreds with an unknown virus, except the dark stranger Faye sees walking away from the hellish inferno.

Based on the popular anime TV series, Cowboy Bebop — The Movie seems to have it all, elements of just about every crime-action scenario you can think of and more, wound inside a sound track to match, from Euro-pop and Latin happy to Western rock, big band and distorted swing. You’ll notice little bits of Blade Runner, spaghetti westerns and slick ’60s spy flicks. In a romantic martial arts fight between cowboy Spike and Mars Army Special Forces alumnus Elektra — all arms and legs slicing through the air to quick jazz with an In Like Flint attitude — she demands to know what he’s doing there. Spike answers, “Heads I tell you, tails we go out on a date.”

The story twists around Vincent, a mysterious man in a long dark coat who speaks in Promethean poetry: “We will find out soon enough, that the world itself is insane.” But unlike Prometheus, he doesn’t assist man by bringing him fire; instead he wields bioterrorism as a means to end the purgatory they all live in.

Director Shinichirô Watanabe drives us through a fantastic land, taking advantage of the anime medium with unearthly angles and delicate details in a postmodern, animated epic laced with film-noir savvy. And thanks to writers Marc Handler, Keiko Nobumoto and Hajime Yatate, no matter how high-tech futuristic Bebop gets, it’s continually pulled back to Mars with lines like “The more I know, the shorter my life gets.” The final result pulls you in by intertwining intrigue with story, dialogue and incredibly rendered details throughout. Light shines through a window and highlights the edges of profiles; landscapes are blurred by exhaust fumes; even the images on the TV screens project through quivering horizontal lines as if filmed.

It’s not an easy thing to pull all these varying references into a new reality and make them work, but Cowboy Bebop has them and owns them like a Rauschenberg collage. When Faye watches the truck she’s been following blow up in front of her, she sees Vincent walking away from the blast in slow motion, the tails of his long black coat blowing in the wind. It’s almost a direct cut from a John Woo flick — the only thing missing is the flock of doves. But that’s OK in this pop-culture anime mishmash that breathes fresh breaths with a touch of the fantastic.

Cowboy Bebop takes us to a strange, techno-exotic place where crime, bioterrorism, smart mouths and wild anime make for a beautiful marriage.


Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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