Written by: Jimmy Warden
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Keri Russell Alden Ehrenreich, and O'Shea Jackson Jr.
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"A bear fucking did cocaine. A bear did cocaine!”
Long-time readers of this site (y’all are out there, right?) know that I've spent over a decade lamenting the plight of my beloved killer animal movies. A once fertile well that’s become poisoned by irony and half-assed joke concepts, this genre has largely become a laughingstock, nearly the sole domain of SyFy Channel and The Asylum, who’ve spent all this time racing to the bottom of the barrel. All this time, I’ve maintained that the funniest—and most entertaining—thing to do with these outlandish productions would be to do right by them. Yes, we get it: something titled Sharknado is a joke, but it doesn’t have to be the joke. What if someone invested real energy, craftsmanship, and a decent budget into one of these things? What if they weren’t intentionally so bad that only existed to be the target of internet snark?
After all these years, Universal has called my bluff with Cocaine Bear. Well, probably not my bluff specifically, but it’d be neat if someone in charge over there made a movie to specifically prove my point. Anyway, in theory, something titled Cocaine Bear isn’t too far removed philosophically from the likes of the nonsense that’s flooded airwaves and streaming services over the past decade. It still comes with a hearty, “can you believe we made this shit?” kind of wink because, come on, it’s a movie titled Cocaine Bear. The big, obvious difference is that Universal has invested the stuff that eludes most of those other productions: the decent budget, the infectious energy, and a priority on actual craftsmanship. It turns out that this stuff matters because Elizabeth Banks takes the one joke and runs with it, proving that these movies can be silly, ironic, and genuinely raucous creature features that don’t skimp on gnarly gore.
Oddly enough, this outlandish premise is rooted in history, and Banks’ film begins there: in 1985, drug smuggler Andrew Thornton III (Matthew Rhys) drops a shipment of cocaine over the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia before falling to his death when his parachute fails to open. Waiting in the same forest is the titular bear, doing Nancy Reagan proud by remaining drug free—at least until it stumbles across the coke and ingests it. Now leveled up to Cocaine Bear status, it starts to terrorize the various forest interlopers: unsuspecting hikers, a woman (Keri Russel) looking for a pair of lost children, park rangers, emergency services, a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and a drug kingpin (Ray Liotta) who dispatches a couple of cronies (Alden Ehrenreich & O’Shea Jackson) to track down the missing stash.
A movie like Cocaine Bear obviously comes with some self-awareness, and that opening sequence lets you know it’s in on its own joke. Between the ironic deployment of vintage anti-drug PSAs and Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” heralding Thornton’s coked-out dance routine, it’s clear that Banks and company understood this part of the assignment at least. You don’t go into a movie with this title expecting a rumination on the human condition. Let’s be honest: you don’t expect much ruminating at all. However, Banks is also aware enough to realize that you can’t lean on the silly premise exclusively, so she goes out of her way to establish this won’t just be 90 minutes of characters gawking and mugging in the presence of a drug-addled bear. The beast has its fun with an early encounter with a pair of European hikers (Kristofer Hivju & Hannah Hoekstra), but then Banks introduces the colorful, offbeat characters that will be involved with the actual story.
It’s a spirited effort, one that finds Banks taking the “fling everything against the wall” mentality to see what sticks, meaning everyone—and I mean every single character—gets a schtick of some sorts. Naturally, some of it works, while other bits could use some polish. Ehrenreich and Jackson are a fun duo, with the former playing a lovelorn single father mourning the recent death of his wife. He’s also the son of Liotta’s drug lord who’s vowed to quit the family business so he can take care of his own infant son. There’s a sweetness to his performance that almost convinces you that there might be something more to Cocaine Bear besides arch humor. For his part, Liotta—in one of the final roles he completed before his death—is clearly relishing the chance to replicate that same coked-out paranoiac energy from the last act of Goodfellas. Whitlock’s wry, deadpan turn nicely counterbalances the surrounding mania, all while providing a solid emotional anchor to the proceedings.
You’d think that would come from the ordeal involving Russell’s single mom Sari striking off into the woods to find her daughter (Brooklynn Prince), who skipped school with her tagalong friend (Christian Convery). This trio is a little underserved, though, and are quickly relegated to subplot status, wandering out of the movie for long stretches as the search takes Sari deeper into the forest. More than anything, the kids exist for the same reason the bear exists: as a humorous juxtaposition to the massive amount of cocaine that falls into the forest. Once these precocious tykes ramble into the movie with affected southern accents and a disconcerting curiosity about cocaine, you’re left with no doubt about how silly things are about to be. In fact, the deeper you get into the woods, the sillier things get: Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) fends off a trio of teenage vandals (Aaron Holliday leads the charge with one of the film’s most offbeat turns) while harboring a crush on the motormouth wildlife inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). With all of these elements playing off each other, Cocaine Bear starts to feel like a sketch comedy where everyone has a bit and the titular beast is the punchline that they’re all straining to get to. I did not expect to go into a movie titled Cocaine Bear and find myself wishing for more of the Cocaine Bear.
Thankfully, when Banks obliges, she really obliges. Once the bear lays siege on the ranger station and the goofballs within, Cocaine Bear starts to realize its raucous, face-ripping potential with a sequence that descends into a gory comedy of errors involving stray gunshots and a rescue attempt that goes delightfully haywire. Imagine one of those great, meticulously crafted Final Destination sequences that end with tons of people being splattered, only there’s a bear high on cocaine causing the carnage (and you can’t forget that there’s a bear high on cocaine because the characters frequently remind you that this is a bear that has done cocaine, you see). I think David R. Ellis would approve of the way Banks weaves morbid humor into the splattery chaos, coaxing laughter even when someone’s face smashes into pavement, grinding it into roadkill. It’s exactly the kind of delirious nonsense you want from something like this, and Banks proves that this stuff can be good—like, for real good, and not ironically “so bad it’s good”—when the craftsmanship is up to snuff (it should go without saying that WETA’s bear effects are top notch and go a long way in making the movie effective).
Unfortunately, I can’t help but think the movie could use just a little bit more of this type of sequence. Forgive the obvious metaphor, but it’s a high that Cocaine Bear never quite recaptures. The comedown isn’t a total bummer, though: the bear still has its moments, like when it snorts coke off of severed limbs and munches on a victim’s guts, but it begins to feel like an interloper in its own movie once Banks goes all-in on the human element. A tense Mexican standoff, a third act betrayal, and familial melodrama relegate the titular beast to the background until it’s needed to tidily wrap everything up (with an assist from its own coked-out cubs, just in case you’re worried if Cocaine Bear gets too serious down the stretch). Banks threads a delicate needle here, nimbly weaving together killer critter absurdity through offbeat hicksploitation humor and surprisingly heartwarming drama. I also have to believe this is the only movie in history with a dedication to a recently deceased actor whose final screen appearance has them getting mauled by a bear.
Not to go all Voltaire on your ass, but this is probably the best a movie titled Cocaine Bear can be, and it’s worth celebrating when someone gets this kind of movie mostly right. After years of Sharknados and Dinocrocs and Piranahcondas, we didn’t need absolute perfection here, and Cocaine Bear is the platonic ideal of the movie I want to see when I plop myself into a theater chair at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon after a long week at work. I just want to indulge the lizard (er, ursine?) part of my brain that craves nothing more than buttery popcorn with a side of splatter. The older I get, the more I appreciate movies that peddle in pure escapism. For 95 minutes, Cocaine Bear distracted me from my daily anxieties by making me believe a bear can get high. It also restored my faith in this particular genre—it’s certainly not the first killer animal film in recent memory to be very good (The Shallows and Crawl say hello), but it feels like a direct rejoinder to the frivolous productions that have plagued us for the last decade. In short, it puts everyone on notice: your absurd killer animal movies no longer have an excuse to be utter tripe. When people ask me what I can reasonably expect from a movie with some absurd title like this, I can now say I expect it to be at least as good as Cocaine Bear. I know the War on Drugs told me to "just say no," but I don't remember anyone ever saying anything about cocaine bears so I think it's okay.
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