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John Cho is taking what’s his in Cowboy Bebop

Something about space brings the most out of John Cho. Twelve years ago, Cho should’ve exploded in popularity from the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise as helmsman Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, the way his co-star Chris Pine has. While it wasn’t his breakout role — that would be as “John (MILF Guy)” in the American Pie films, evidence that even with a cheap joke he could steal a scene — it was such clear evidence that there was so much more that he could do in a movie. Sulu, the wry pilot who wasn’t even supposed to be on deck, was also a badass swordsman? Give us more of that guy!

He was, as would frequently be the case in his career, a supporting character brimming with enough presence to carry a film of his own. Over an astonishingly long career, Cho has slowly been staking out ground for himself, showing new depth at every opportunity. It’s something that makes Cowboy Bebop, Netflix’s live-action adaptation of an acclaimed animated series, remarkable on its own merits, simply because it is the one place where, finally, John Cho could show the world everything he was capable of at once.

The John Cho story isn’t a dramatic one, as much as it deserves to be. But it is easily appreciated by anyone who cares to look. While American Pie would make him recognizable, the actor would mostly be relegated to thankless bit parts from the late ’90s until 2002, when he was cast as Steve Choe in director Justin Lin’s indie debut, Better Luck Tomorrow.

As in Star Trek, it’s a small but vital role where Cho plays a mysterious prep school badass that intersects with the film’s primary quartet of bored honor roll public school kids who turn to a life of petty crime. In a movie full of firsts — in addition to Lin, the film gave a proper introduction to an entire generation of Asian American actors like Sung Kang — the story hinges on Cho’s character, and his performance is expertly tragic and layered. He’s a guy who would likely bully protagonist Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) in a lesser film, but instead forms a strange bond that is both yearning and antagonistic. Steve is someone that Ben can never really get a handle on: At first, he’s the guy cheating on Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), the girl Ben is in love with, a rich punk who doesn’t know what he has. But surprisingly, Steve encourages Ben to spend time with her, and even pushes through the friction toward something akin to friendship. With just a few scenes, Cho creates the film’s most complex character, breaking ground of his own in an already groundbreaking work for Asian Americans in cinema.

Cho would display a consistent knack for this: Even in minor roles, he deftly evaded stereotypes in an industry that frequently limits Asian American actors. While big, splashy starring roles often eluded him outside of the Harold & Kumar stoner comedies, Cho would slowly move to the center of the frame in the early 2010s as a fixture in the Star Trek films and in the main cast in a number of short-lived series like FlashForward and Selfie (itself one of Cho’s most cult-classic roles, one that demonstrated his ability to carry a show as a charismatic leading man). But as the decade came to a close, Cho quietly found himself with room to stretch, each time feeling like he was revealing his potential for the first time. There was the tender, intimate drama of 2017’s Columbus, the human anchor to the surprisingly effective found-footage-on-screens thriller Searching, the heart of the second season of the terribly underrated horror TV series The Exorcist. Wherever you wanted to go, John Cho could take you there, if you let him.

Photo: Geoffrey Short/Netflix

Cowboy Bebop arrives at a critical juncture in this stretch of his career. Now 49, the Korean American star is stepping into the asymmetrical blue suit of Spike Spiegel and leveraging his decadeslong career to take on the singularly difficult challenge of selling audiences on a highly idiosyncratic and strange sci-fi show that has a little bit of everything in it: genre pastiche, broad comedy, martial arts wizardry, tragic romance. Then there’s also the fact that the source material has a passionate fandom that isn’t inclined to be satisfied by any live-action take on it, let alone this one. It’s a lot.

In criticism, it’s easy to overstate the influence of one person on a given project: Clarity comes from focus, and focusing on one aspect of an object by definition results in the occlusion of others. If Cowboy Bebop is a success, it’s not only because of John Cho’s performance, but all of the considerable effort put into bringing Bebop to life does need Cho in order to succeed. Lucky for Bebop, John Cho is a fantastic Spike Spiegel.

Perhaps it’s difficult to recognize the enormity of what Cho is doing without the original anime to compare his performance to. The animated Spike Spiegel doesn’t feel quite real in his stylized world of blue and jazz. He fights with impossibly angular grace, a paradoxical starving loser who is also impossibly slick and assured, bearing great tragedy that is not undermined by farce. Animation thrives in contradiction and abstraction. John Cho is human, bound by physics and anatomy. The kicks and poses that Spike’s silhouette pulls off in the anime’s classic title sequence must be rethought, for his body’s sake.

Spike, however, is lucky to have John Cho, a real-life man capable of giving shape to the years of characterization that fans have projected onto his brief animated life. Perhaps it’s because Cho has also been a figure of raw potential, and as the bounty hunter, he gets to release it all across 10 episodes of pure kinetic energy. Cho’s Spike fights and fucks and argues his way across a larger-than-life future, equal parts cowboy, criminal, martial arts star, tragic lead, romantic antihero, and haunted pariah all at once.

His take on Spike Spiegel is, pointedly, one that bleeds. In Cowboy Bebop’s first episode, while in pursuit of a bounty, he is moved by a compassion that he knows better than to listen to, and when it results in someone dying, he takes the blow on the chin, knowing there will be more. Cho’s Spiegel is, above all else, doomed, and the viewer can see that in the way he closes his eyes every time he meets someone that he knows is doomed too, even as he deludes himself into briefly thinking he can do something about it. That knowing carries throughout: when he’s arguing with frenemy Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda) or eating noodles with partner Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), and when he’s marching to his own reckoning in the finale. He’s a man who’s died before, who knows he will likely die again — and not for the last time. He also makes it look easy.

John Cho stands on a neon-lit rooftop in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop.

Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Justin Lin likes to say that Cho’s Better Luck Tomorrow co-star Sung Kang, who plays a character named Han in the film, is playing the same Han in the Fast and Furious films. It’s a little silly given the grounded nature of his indie debut and the places that the Fast films eventually go to, but it’s not entirely ridiculous. The connective tissue is there for those who care to grab hold of it.

The same could be said of Cho’s Steven Choe. Better Luck Tomorrow, which is loosely inspired by a real murder, eventually builds toward Steven’s death. It hangs over the film and over Cho’s face, the economy of his performance giving eerie weight to the moments he’s on screen, like someone who’s died before. How fitting for Spike Spiegel. Because John Cho has always been this good. Without straining or overcommitting, Cho knows how to make every moment count — the paternal concern and panic confined to Skype windows in Searching, the understated fun of a Sulu who says he’s trained in “fencing” only to wield a sword like a goddamn assassin in Star Trek, and yes, a guy who so memorably played a stoner that he can pretty much just ask for weed on a street corner and someone will give it to him.

At the midpoint of Better Luck Tomorrow, Cho, as Steven, lectures Ben during a daytime coke bender. He’s swinging away in a batting cage, asking the question he’ll continually ask until the end of the movie: “You happy, Ben?” When Ben returns the question, Steven delivers his response in a focused monotone: “I’m very happy,” he begins, listing out the trappings of the good life: loving parents, Ivy League scholarships, a great girlfriend (that he cheats on). Eventually, fury wells up in his face. “I’m so fucking happy, I can’t stop it!” he begins.

“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Steven says. “When you’ve got everything, you want what’s left. You can’t settle for being happy — that’s a fucking trap. You gotta take life into your own hands, do whatever it takes to break the cycle. That’s what it is: breaking the cycle.”

This is what John Cho is doing, once again in outer space: taking every space he has slowly carved out for himself, and assembling it all in a shirtless sweat on the cramped decks of the spaceship from which Cowboy Bebop gets its name. You can see it all coming together — the haunted men of The Exorcist and Searching, the romantic leads both comic and tragic of Selfie and Columbus, and yeah, even the overachieving stoner of Harold & Kumar is here, somewhere in the bones of that ship. It’s not quite the gloss of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but that was never going to be his ship. The Bebop is, and he’s taking it places. He’s breaking the cycle.

The live-action Cowboy Bebop adaptation is streaming now on Netflix.

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