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‘New Gods: Yang Jian’ Review: ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Without the Bop

In this animated fantasy, a former deity must confront his traumatic past if he hopes to find absolution and save the world.

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By Robert Daniels

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The director Zhao Ji’s “New Gods: Yang Jian,” a reductive prequel to “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” teases some tantalizing lore: Yang Jian (Wang Kai) was once a god known by another name.

On the orders of his mentor, Master Yuding (Li Lihong), the god then known as Erlang Shen buried his sister beneath Lotus Peak to encase tumultuous spiritual phoenixes, bent on destroying the world, within the mountain. Why he couldn’t save his sister is one question the film attempts to answer. Nevertheless, the incident caused his third eye to close, depleting his powers.

Ambiguously taking place “a long time ago,” the writer Mu Chuan’s screenplay sees the now resigned Yang Jian slaving away as a bounty hunter with a team whose offbeat dynamics, combined with a quirky jazz score and immaculately rendered neo-noir futurist cities as backdrops, mirror the look and feel of “Cowboy Bebop.”

A dancer, Wanluo (Ji Guanlin), hires Yang Jian to capture Chenxiang (Li Lanling), a thief wanted for stealing the magical lamp of universal contentment (which can reopen Lotus Peak, causing the freed phoenixes to destroy the planet). Rather than crafting an adventure with Yang Jian and his team, the film opts for a sprawling effect, whereby Yang Jian, after seeing how this job relates to him personally, sets out on his own quest to learn why Chenxiang stole the lamp.

The diverging narrative reduces the fun “Cowboy Bebop” tone to window dressing. When the film reveals Yang Jian and Chenxiang’s surprising connection, the heartbreak we’re meant to feel doesn’t materialize amid the plot’s elusive machinations. The film’s pulse only quickens when the grounded graphics, from Light Chaser Animation Studios, enliven the otherworldly fight sequences between gods.

Even for fans of this animated universe, “New Gods: Yang Jian” can’t turn its viewers into believers.

New Gods: Yang Jian
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.

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