“Dumb fun with a great cast, Cocaine Bear manages to deal the good stuff without forgetting the sort of film it's trying to be.”
- Veteran cast having fun with their roles
- Multigenerational appeal of coke-addicted killer bears
- Weak anti-drug messaging
Judging by the crowd that turned out for the first local screening of Elizabeth Banks’ gory killer-bear comedy, Cocaine Bear might be the movie event of the year. Banks’ weird, wild movie is loosely inspired by the real story of an American black bear that ingested a massive amount of cocaine dumped in the wilderness by a drug smuggler in 1985. In the real world, the bear sadly died from an overdose, but Banks’ R-rated film imagines a timeline in which that bear went on a cocaine-fueled murder spree across the forests of Georgia, ripping tourists, rangers, and ambitious drug smugglers to bloody shreds.
It’s a premise that clearly resonates across a wide, generational spectrum, but is it any good? At its best, Cocaine Bear is a mixed bag. The film’s impressive cast mostly feels like they’re in on the joke, and it generally maintains a sweet spot between full-on camp and taking itself too seriously.
An inside joke
Banks assembles a great ensemble of actors in Cocaine Bear who know when to oversell the drama and when to play it straight.
Playing a henchman tasked with retrieving the cocaine, O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) is positioned as a sort of audience surrogate, observing (and experiencing) the madness of it all through a (relatively) rational lens. Conversely, the reliably entertaining Margo Martindale (Justified) plays an impulsive, gun-toting forest ranger with an inferiority complex and an itchy trigger finger who’s primed to add more chaos to the saga.
The cast is filled out by Keri Russell (The Americans) as a mother in a neon-pink track suit searching for her missing daughter, who was kidnapped — and inexplicably, not torn apart — by the bear. The Florida Project actress Brooklynn Prince plays the daughter, while Christian Convery (Sweet Tooth) portrays the girl’s best friend, who seems all too aware that these events are going to turn him into a therapist’s most lucrative client.
Pushing some of the film’s other narrative threads forward is Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) as the grieving partner of Jackson’s character, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire) as the sad-sack police detective investigating the whereabouts of the missing cocaine, and Ray Liotta as a drug kingpin on the hook for the botched drug run — it’s one of the Goodfellas actor’s final roles.
More familiar faces pop in and out of the film, mostly to add some comic relief before their characters are savagely mauled, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones), and Matthew Rhys (The Americans), among others. Their screen time is brief, but effective, and Banks does a nice job of putting them in position to maximize laughs.
While the general vibe of the film wavers a bit as it toys with familiar genre tropes — the single mother who finds her inner strength while protecting her child, criminals who have a change of heart when faced with the impact of their actions, the animal-rights activist eaten by the creatures he protects — Cocaine Bear strikes a balance between being not as funny as you hope and not as dumb as you fear. It’s also a smartly compact, 95-minute escapade that knows it needs to get the job done well before your buzz starts wearing off.
Ultimately, Cocaine Bear delivers on its wild premise, as long as you enter the theater with the appropriate expectations.
Banks’ film is well-executed dumb fun, with an edginess that never goes too far, and a self-awareness that ensures you don’t think too hard about the escalating insanity of events unfolding on the screen. It feels intentionally bad, and everyone is in on the joke, including the expertly animated CG bear who becomes an ursine John Wick over the course of the film (t’s worth noting that the bear was created by the talented team at Weta FX, and is the real star of the film).
The film’s opening scene features a cocaine-addled pilot (Rhys) dumping duffel bags of blow out of a plane, only to knock himself unconscious and fall to his death, setting the story’s events in motion. It’s a scene that seemingly offers the best advice Cocaine Bear can offer audiences: If you want to have a good time, turn off your brain, because things just get dumber from here.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks, Cocaine Bear is in theaters now.
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