Very loosely inspired by a colorful real-life incident that sadly didn’t end well for the animal in question, Cocaine Bear is a period horror-comedy that strives to answer the question that’s plagued humanity for centuries: exactly how fucking crazy would a wild black bear be if it consumed several kilos worth of Columbian nose candy? Directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), the resulting film is an ultra-gory, cartoonishly violent, tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek genre film that, in the most general sense, provides exactly what it says on the tin. When one plunks down their money to see something titled Cocaine Bear, it’s implicitly understood that the experience will be closer to the winking crumminess of something like Snakes on a Plane than, say, the comparative sobriety of Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins battling a bear in the wilderness in The Edge. If you’re looking for a film where a computer-generated bear, in the midst of a coked-out frenzy, parkours its way into a speeding ambulance, mauling everyone inside, all set to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” you’ve found it. But tone is a tricky thing and the road to hell is paved with failed horror-comedies, often guilty of erring too far in one direction (typically the second part of the sub-genre), and Cocaine Bear is no different. It’s so incessant in letting you know it’s also in on the joke, and how self-consciously wacky that joke is, that the effect is off-putting. You’ll recall the bruised ribs from all the elbowing the film does long after the gags are forgotten.
Using the peculiar 1985 death of drug smuggler Andrew Thornton (Matthew Rhys, in a cameo) as a jumping off point, we learn that hundreds of kilos of cocaine belonging to the St. Louis mafia have been errantly dropped from an airplane and scattered about Chattahoochee National Forest. Desperate to retrieve the missing product is leathery-looking and ill-tempered mob boss Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen roles) who dispatches two of his bag men to Georgia: Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Syd’s son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s still heartbroken over the recent death of his wife. Hot on their trail is Tennessee police detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who’s been chasing Syd for years and isn’t about to let a little thing like jurisdiction stand in his way, although he is presently distracted by the small, effeminate-looking dog that he’s inadvertently adopted. There’s also latchkey kid Dee Dee (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) who, along with her friend Henry (Christian Convery), skips school to go traipsing through the woods, forcing Dee Dee’s divorcée mother Sari (Keri Russell) to chase after them. Throw into the mix assorted amorous park rangers (Margo Martindale), touchy-feely conservationists (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and cowering European tourists (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra) and you’ve got quite the menagerie of broadly comedic types/potential mauling victims.
And then, of course, there’s the bear. A quasi-photorealistic creation from Wētā FX, the creature which straddles the line between antagonist and antihero is introduced already in the throes of drug use, having clawed its way into a brick or twelve, alternating between absent-mindedly grinding against tree trunks and being whipped into a fervor of limb-cleaving rage as it slashes its way across the forest in search of more of that sweet, sweet friskie powder. Much of the alleged humor here stems from the outsized destruction caused by a confused 175-pound wild animal, with the film treating toot much the same way Popeye cartoons used to treat spinach: imbuing the creature with extraordinary strength and speed, invulnerability, and a weird fixation on how interesting its paws are. Yet for all the kitschy novelty of the premise, it’s hard to see how the threat is demonstrably different than, really, any feral apex predator. From Jaws to Lake Placid to Grizzly Man, there’s no shortage of cautionary tales about nature taking a bite out of man’s hubris, so Cocaine Bear’s contribution to the longstanding tradition is to pose “yes, but what if it also looked like an explosion at the wig factory?”
There is no comedic fruit too low-hanging for Cocaine Bear. Foul-mouthed tweens, horny senior citizens, indiscriminate brain splatter, garish costuming, ironic needle-drops, and of course the inherent hilarity of everyone being on and/or chasing after the devil’s dandruff. The one genuinely transgressive concept here is in the judgment-free depiction of small children daring one another to sample the drug, choking down enough blow to fuel an SNL afterparty. But even that’s primarily an excuse to mine the confusing side effects for knee-slapping comedy. Banks’ cardinal sin is her tendency to meet the absurdity of the premise with even greater absurdity, encouraging every actor to play scenes as large as possible while the script humors improv-comedy-ready digressions and incongruous character notes. None of the actors seem to be on the same page, with Ehrenreich attempting genuine pathos within the framework of bickering, Tarantino-esque irreverence while Liotta seems to have taken on the challenge of making a homicidal, drug-fiend bear appear sympathetic by comparison. It’s too many comedic variables competing with one another when one would think “what if bear + cocaine?” should have been enough. It all feels like a hat on a hat. Or in this case, a wig on a wig.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.