- Director: Elizabeth Banks
- Writer: Jimmy Warden
- Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Movie titles can be deceptive. Sometimes the title has nothing to do with the content of the film or can only tangentially relate to its themes. That’s not the case with Cocaine Bear, the latest big studio horror comedy that’s designed for a quick cinematic high in the first quarter of the year.
Based on the “so insane it has to be true” story of a bear that ingested a large amount of cocaine in Tennessee in 1985 and directed by Elizabeth Banks, the film coasts on the insanity of its premise but provides a number of exciting horror/action set pieces. The set-up is faithful to what actually happened: a drug smuggler jettisoned a number of duffel bags full of drugs before falling to his death, where a wild, curious bear happened upon them. Everything else from Jimmy Warden’s screenplay is essentially fabricated, from the characters involved to the often gruesome deaths that befall most of them.
The film wastes no time in introducing its rather sprawling cast and how they come across the titular bear. We have Keri Russel’s Sari, her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Dee Dee and Henry ditch school and head to the national park where the bear resides, and Sari sets out to rescue them. This trio feels least essential to the film overall, since they don’t interact much with any other characters until the conclusion.
Of course, you never really care too much about the human characters within Cocaine Bear, which holds it back but isn’t a complete dealbreaker. At least there’s a fun dynamic between Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Stache (Aaron Holliday), and Syd (Ray Liotta), drug dealers on the hunt for the remaining cocaine out of fear for retaliation from their Colombian bosses. And there’s a bit of a detective story thrown in, with Isaiah Whitlock Jr.’s detective Bob on Syd’s trail. Plus Character Actor Margo Martindale steals a few scenes as the park’s comically inept ranger.
Crucially, nobody acts totally inept when they’re faced with a drug-fueled bear. That’s not to say the film is without its jokes. In fact, the bear attack set pieces are almost uniformly well staged, mixing character and situational humor with gross-out kills. One of the film’s highlights involves Martindale, holed up in the ranger station, as she’s “rescued” by an ambulance crew. To its credit, Warden’s script doesn’t try to jam in any feel-good lessons or moralizing. This is the film’s blessing and its curse; there isn’t a noticeable amount of growth on the parts of any of its characters, making the whole endeavor less enduring than it could be. Banks could have easily made Cocaine Bear into a kind of Fargo-esque tale of bad people receiving their comeuppances. Rather, it’s a randomly assembled crew of small town misfits. But, if all you want to see is a CGI bear terrorizing a game cast of A-listers (including Ray Liotta’s last on-screen appearance before his death last year), have I got the movie for you.
Cocaine Bear will be available in theaters everywhere on February 24.