John Cho is the best part of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop and so many things

Something about area brings one of the most out of John Cho. Twelve years earlier, Cho ought to’ve taken off in appeal from the deck of the U.S.S. Business as helmsman Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, the method his co-star Chris Pine has. While it wasn’t his breakout function — that would be as “John (MILF Guy)” in the American Pie movies, proof that even with a low-cost joke he might take a scene — it was such clear proof that there was a lot more that he might perform in a film. Sulu, the wry pilot who wasn’t even expected to be on deck, was likewise a badass swordsman? Provide us more of that man!

He was, as would regularly hold true in his profession, a supporting character brimming with adequate existence to bring a movie of his own. Over an amazingly long profession, Cho has actually gradually been staking out ground for himself, revealing brand-new depth at every chance. It’s something that makes Cowboy Bebop, Netflix’s live-action adjustment of a well-known animated series, amazing by itself benefits, merely due to the fact that it is the one location where, lastly, John Cho might reveal the world whatever he can simultaneously.

The John Cho story isn’t a significant one, as much as it is worthy of to be. However it is quickly valued by anybody who cares to look. While American Pie would make him identifiable, the star would mainly be relegated to thankless small role from the late ’90s up until 2002, when he was cast as Steve Choe in director Justin Lin’s indie launching, Much Better Luck Tomorrow.

As in Star Trek, it’s a little however essential function where Cho plays a mystical prep school badass that converges with the movie’s main quartet of bored honor roll public school child who rely on a life of minor criminal offense. In a film loaded with firsts — in addition to Lin, the movie provided an appropriate intro to a whole generation of Asian American stars like Sung Kang — the story depends upon Cho’s character, and his efficiency is skillfully awful and layered. He’s a person who would likely bully lead character Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) in a lower movie, however rather forms an unusual bond that is both yearning and antagonistic. Steve is somebody that Ben can never ever truly get a manage on: In the beginning, he’s the man unfaithful on Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), the lady Ben remains in love with, an abundant punk who doesn’t understand what he has. However remarkably, Steve motivates Ben to hang around with her, and even presses through the friction towards something similar to relationship. 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.

John Cho’s Spike stands with his gun in Vicious’ face in front of stained glass in Cowboy Bebop

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 towards 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 simply 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 gradually 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 awful 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, however that was never going to be his ship. The Bebop is, and he’s taking it locations. He’s breaking the cycle.

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

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.