‘Cocaine Bear’: Maniacal Dark Comedy Gets High on Gory Anarchy
Anything can be made into a movie. The key is in how the story is pulled off. “Cocaine Bear” may go down in contemporary film history as an example of how this might work. The title promises you a movie about a bear high on coke that goes on a rampage, and that is precisely what we get. Elizabeth Banks has made a looney slice of screen anarchy. The actor-turned-director dives so heedlessly into the story at hand that it becomes painfully irresistible. Leave “good taste” at the door and enjoy this rather well-directed, well-performed curiosity destined to become a cult classic. After trying her hand at franchises, Banks dispenses with all caution, proving that sometimes what a filmmaker needs is to go for broke, with the support of a major studio believing in a zany premise.
Supposedly this is all based on a “true story” that took place in 1985, but the screenplay by Jimmy Warden is pure invention and speculation. What is accurate is that a drug plane dropped its loot of cocaine (and a doomed drug runner) into the Tennessee wilderness, where a dead bear was found that had consumed quite a lot of the narcotic. The movie version begins with an ensemble of characters venturing into the Chattahoochee mountains, where they encounter a black bear that has cheerfully consumed a large portion of the stranded cocaine. First we meet Olaf (Kristofer Hivju), a European hiker who watches his wife get mauled by the coked-up bear. Two kids wandering the woods, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) also come across the beast and the drugs. The powdery product belongs to someone, namely angry Colombians, who expect their American contact, Syd (Ray Liotta in his final performance) to track it all down. He sends henchman Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to do the job. They, and a detective on the case named Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), will cross paths with the rampaging mammal.
There is an intriguing connection going on in this movie between the filmmaker and audience. Banks is not trying to sell us on the idea but basking in how those attending are most likely showing up because the premise sounds so wild. Yet it’s easy to sense a deeper satirical streak at play here. Banks has been in enough big titles to know how to play around with a genre. “Cocaine Bear” is the mischievous cousin of “creature features” such as “The Shallows” and “Beast,” but without a shred of taking itself too seriously. It’s poking fun at various movies all at once. The late, great Ray Liotta is a caricature of all the gangsters he’s ever played, forced to take care of his grandson and meeting with henchmen at a shopping mall play area. Keri Russell is the suburban ‘80s mom searching for her missing daughter, Dee Dee, while looking like she belongs at a neighborhood soccer game. You need real oddballs to stumble into the path of the enraged bear. For that we get park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), a tough professional crushing on Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is decked in full ‘80s hairdo and carrying a Smokey the Bear sign.
Not much exposition or depth is given to these characters and they don’t need it. The cast perform with total gusto and mania. Everyone is created to be put in the path of the real lead character. The bear is a she and isn’t designed like some cheap CGI creation. When she isn’t ripping off someone’s leg or disemboweling their intestines, the bear is actually quite lovable, particularly when sneezing out a cloud of coke. Banks and cinematographer John Guleserian gloriously reference B-movies and classic monster thrillers with their visual approach. A paw will break through glass and grab some poor sucker’s face and ambulances guarantee no safety. Sniffing cocaine for this bear is the equivalent of Popeye eating spinach, it provides a boosting super force that allows her to maniacally climb trees and leap through roads in a snarling ecstasy. Banks also pushes the gore to a surprising level but knows how to make it funny. Because the premise is so ludicrous, our minds don’t necessarily register the bloodshed as obscene but as pure slapstick.
A trick Banks uses that makes the movie work well is that she allows the bear to be the real over-the-top gag. The humans are funny on a simpler level. Isiah Whitlock Jr. seems to be having a ball as the cop looking for the coke while being stuck with a fancy little dog for a pet. His standoff atop a gazebo with O’Shea Jackson Jr. is absurd yet works because the presence of the bear ties it all together. Margo Martindale is brilliantly bonkers while getting her posterior slashed or misfiring her gun, leaving her own trail of violence. She also has one of those scenes involving a speeding chase that will inspire gasps and cheers. Banks also doesn’t shy away from vagina jokes, jabs at anti-drug campaigns and even family-friendly anti-drug messaging. She just wants to use every possible angle this concept can tap.
Until now, Banks’ most famous work as a director has involved familiar franchise continuations. She directed “Pitch Perfect 2” and 2019’s “Charlie’s Angels,” which had visual energy, a great performance by Kristen Stewart, and waved a feminist banner that annoyed many commentators. It wasn’t a perfect film but not the worst effort. “Cocaine Bear” signals where Banks might go next, maybe into sharper satire the next time around. She has made a comedy that dares us to laugh at it. It rampages without a care in the world and in turn can be an infectious watch. The soundtrack is a playlist of ‘80s hits that only fuel the roller coaster sensation. Nearly everything in this movie can be seen as a subversive commentary or tearing up of our pop culture obsessions. Special effects, cartels and nostalgia have been our bread and butter for years. This one has it all in the form of a furry human meat grinder. “Cocaine Bear” gets high on its own supply and devilishly tests how willing we are to get addicted to its madness.
“Cocaine Bear” releases Feb. 24 in theaters nationwide.