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Cocaine Bear

This based-on-a-true-tale flick's big attraction is all there in the title: a rampaging bear high on cocaine, and wreaking havoc in an OTT horror-comedy.
By Sarah Ward
February 23, 2023
By Sarah Ward
February 23, 2023

Killer trailer, filler flick: that's the Cocaine Bear story. This loosely based-on-a-true-tale horror-comedy sports a Snakes on a Plane-style moniker that sums up its contents perfectly, as the sneak peek that arrived at the end of 2022 made enticingly clear. Going heavy on the so-OTT-it-can-only-be-real vibe, that initial glimpse also tasked Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) with exclaiming a couple more sentences to express the utter bewilderment that this story sparks. "The bear, it fucking did cocaine. A bear did cocaine!" he shouts, and with exactly the right amount of infectious incredulity. That is indeed what happened in reality back in 1985, after all, and it's what Elizabeth Banks brings to the screen in her third stint as a director after Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie's Angels — always playing it, for better when it's at its goriest and for worse when it stretches its idea thinner than a white line, like wild tale that it inescapably is.

Yes, almost four decades ago, an American black bear did cocaine when drug smuggler Andrew C Thornton (Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason) dropped a hefty pile of the narcotic from the air. The stash landed in the wilderness, catching the attention of the world's most unlikely coke fiend in Georgia's Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. The creature ripped open the white powder-filled containers, then ingested — and Cocaine Bear endeavours to have fun hypothesising what could've come next. On-screen, a rampage by the critter now-nicknamed Pablo Escobear ensues, with blood, guts and limbs flung around; the body count mounting like Michael Myers is doing the offing (or maybe Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey's other recent ravenous bear); and two words getting screamed over and over. They're just the terms a picture called Cocaine Bear was always bound to focus on: cocaine and bear, obviously.

To be fair to the characters in Banks' film, if you came face to face with a bear doing cocaine, you'd likely yell about it loudly and often as well. Here, the folks doing the bellowing are all 100-percent fictional, and mostly disposable. Nurse and single mother Sari (Keri Russell, Antlers) learns of the cocaine bear after her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) skips school with classmate Henry (Christian Convery, Sweet Tooth) and ends up in the hopped-up mammal's path. St Louis-based drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta, The Many Saints of Newark) has his son Eddie (Ehrenreich) and dealer underling Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr, Obi-Wan Kenobi) actively looking for the coke, while Tennessee detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr, Da 5 Bloods) is actively looking for them after Thornton's death. And, tourists Olaf (Kristofer Hivju, Game of Thrones) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra, Faithfully Yours) just happen to be hiking in the park that day, while Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale, The Watcher) and wildlife expert Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family) are onsite doing their regular jobs.

In the leadup to Cocaine Bear's release, a free Pac-Man-style game hit the web — you play as the bear, snorting energy from lines, packets, piles and bags of cocaine, running around a maze and chomping down as many people as you can. Cocaine Bear, the picture, runs on the same simple thrill, just without anyone mashing buttons to make the animal get devouring. Accordingly, when the bear is coked-up and carnivorous, the flick revels in comedic creature-feature bloodlust and slapstick. A mid-movie ambulance chase and its aftermath is highly inspired and highly amusing, and just as gloriously ridiculous as it should be. The sequence's action choreography, pacing (thanks to editor Joel Negron, Jungle Cruise) and cinematography (via John Guleserian, Candyman) vibrates with a buzz, and nails the B-movie tone that Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen) are overtly pawing at.

Do bears shit in the woods? Yes. Does Cocaine Bear struggle with almost everything around its woodland carnage? Yes again. Alas, if someone isn't being torn to pieces — and each death honestly could be anyone, with more and more supporting figures popping up but everyone lucky to be one-note — the film is about as convincing as its clunky CGI. The script strains so hard for low-hanging laughs around the mauling, which is where all those squawks about cocaine and bears come in, that it's a surprise that no one declares "I've had it with this muthafuckin' bear on this muthafuckin' cocaine". And trying to wring emotions out of parent-child bonds and loss just feels pointless; viewers are here for drug-addled ursine attacks in as many inventive ways as possible, not for cheap heartstring-tugging that does the bear minimum.

Banks' cast put in as much effort as they're asked to, sniffing up the trashy 80s mood as they navigate all that bear-induced chaos. From Russell as a determined mum, Rhys' brief cameo as the man who starts it all and Martindale as a lovelorn ranger — all The Americans co-stars — through to the late, great Liotta in one of his last roles, the bickering-and-bantering Ehrenreich and Jackson, and Prince and Convery almost doing a Moonrise Kingdom parody, they're all visibly having a good time. Cocaine Bear isn't as much sustained fun for its audience, however, but it sure wants to be. Its trailer is a killer in two ways: supremely entertaining, and also everything it needed to be in less than three minutes, ensuring that a full film, even a concise 95-minute one, was destined to seem bloated in comparison. 

A silly slasher, but about a high-and-hungry bear getting grizzly: that's Cocaine Bear at its most engaging, and it's easy to see a gleefully absurd direct-to-streaming franchise springing with instalments like Methamphetamine Monkey and Ecstasy Alligator following — all with diminishing returns. Of course, every animal-attack movie will always pale in comparison to the wildest one there is, aka 1981's lion flick Roar, which'll also rumble to mind when anyone attempts to follow in its footsteps. That's the kind of predator pandemonium that Banks doesn't realise you can't set out to make, but becomes a cult film on its own tumultuous and messy merits. IRL, the cocaine bear that inspired Cocaine Bear didn't munch its way through the park's visitors, with the actual creature now stuffed and on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall — a far blander fate than Cocaine Bear posits, but one just as padded.

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