COCAINE BEAR ½
2023, R, 95 mins.
Keri Russell as Colette Matthews / O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Howard / Alden Ehrenreich as Marty / Ray Liotta as Dentwood / Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Bob / Margo Martindale as LizDirected by Elizabeth Banks / Written by Jimmy Warden
I checked my watch very early on at my screening of COCAINE BEAR. I was barely 30 minutes into it and the thought (at the time) of making it through its next 65 minutes felt pretty daunting to me.
Then...I realized something profound:
I don't like cocaine.
I don't like bears.
I don't like bears high on cocaine.
I didn't find bears high on cocaine to be funny.
I didn't find bears high on cocaine to be scary.
I'm just saying NO to COCAINE BEAR.
I know what you're all probably thinking: Craiger, what kind of film were you possibly expecting with the words cocaine and bear in its title?
In my defense, I'm no cinematic snob.
I have appreciated plenty of sensationalistic trash in the past, especially with one joke/one premise titles.
Look at, for example, SNAKES ON A PLANE, which was gloriously ridiculous and unpretentiously silly trash (Samuel L. Jackson famously stated that the only reason that he took the job to star in it was because he "read the title"). Also, look at HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, which also wholly delivered on the lurid absurdity of its title (it had, yes, a hobo - played by the late Rutger Hauer - that also was indeed packing serious heat). COCAINE BEAR is in the same inane tradition as those two films in terms of generating interest by its title alone: It features a coked up bear wreaking havoc on just about any human in its path (also, BTW, based on a true story...yeah...more on that in a bit). It's not that this - ahem! - fact-based horror comedy isn't trashy, but rather that it's not trashy or entertaining enough for me to throw caution to the wind and recommend it. I rarely laughed out loud with this film, nor did I find it remotely terrifying. Plus, at face value, the core premise is stretched so insanely thin that the resulting film barely even qualifies as...a film. It's more of a comedic sketch unmercifully elongated out to an endurance testing hour and a half.
Set in 1985, COCAINE BEAR introduces us to a drug run gone horribly effed up when a plane carrying multiple duffle bags filled with snow candy gets thrown off of a moving plane and fails to hit its intended targets. The intended recipient of said blow is Syd (the late Ray Liotta, whom you may recall starred in BLOW and GOODFELLAS, with the latter film having him play a drug addicted mafia thug). On the prowl for the missing cocaine are Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O'Shea Jackson), working for the seriously pissed off Syd, who wants his precious cargo found ASAP. We get introduced to a bunch of other characters, including two kids (Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery) that are playing hooky from school, much to the chagrin of their mother, Sari (Keri Russell), who sets off into the nearby woods looking for them. Oh, there's also a ranger named Liz (Margo Martindale) that patrols the surrounding area, not to mention a cop, Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who is looking for evidence of the lost drug cargo. Oh...I almost forgot...there's also a rampaging black bear on the loose that - you betcha! - got his nose into one of those bags of cocaine and is higher than SCARFACE's Tony Montana. Nearly every unsuspecting human that comes in contact with this wild junkie animal has not lived to tell about it.
COCAINE BEAR - as impossible as it is to believe - is based on the wild story of a real 175 pound black bear that fatally overdosed on cocaine in the wilds of Tennessee in the mid-80s (after the drugs were dropped off there by smugglers). The bear was later found dead in Georgia and was subsequently stuffed and displayed in a mall in Kentucky. The jettisoned containers each contained about 75 pounds worth of the stuff, valued at over $20 million at the time. The deceased bear that was examined had its stomach packed with cocaine. Now, very little - if anything - is known about what happened to the bear between eating the cocaine and being found dead, but that hasn't stopped director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden from using this historical event as a launching off point for what amounts to a slasher comedy. For the purposes of clarification, COCAINE BEAR takes - shall we say - incredible liberties with this reality-based tale, most specifically in scene after scene of having this drug salivating bear ripping people to shreds on a mass killing spree. I'm willing to concede to Banks and Warden that a film built around a bear that simply ate cocaine and then later died is not...exciting. The prospect of watching a cocaine-addicted bear eating his way through prey, I guess, is supposed to be exciting and hilarious in equal measure.
COCAINE BEAR deserves points for (a) embracing its sensationalistic gore and violence (which is aplenty and more than earns its R-rating) and reveling in one stupid human after another being made into Swiss Cheese by this animal and (b) the visual effects used to create this snow happy bear are kind of shockingly good (I highly doubt that PETA would have been happy with the prospects of real black bears being asked to go all method here). I think if the multiple shots of the CG bear looked too shoddy that would have been distracting...granted...there are not many frames of reference that the makers here could have relied on to make this bear look completely plausible. Still, the effects here were no where near as awful as I would expect from a $25-30 million budgeted film. COCAINE BEAR also has some moments that did make me chuckle, like how the film opens by using title cards that give us background on this out-there story (their source is listed as Wikipedia). I also liked the opening scene of the aforementioned drug drop, featuring a dancing and prancing Mathew Rhys throwing cocaine filled duffle bags off of that plane, but then suffering from a spectacularly ill-timed accident. Much later on, there's a frantic chase scene involving an ambulance trying to flee from the bear. Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" blares on the soundtrack and winks at audiences. Nice touch. That made me smile.
Note that I said that I chuckled and smiled at a few of these scenes. One of the big sins of COCAINE BEAR is that it's not anywhere near as uproariously hysterical as it thinks it is (or wants to be) while deep diving into this absurd premise. Part of that has a lot to do with the fact that, after the first bear attack, the film seemingly takes forever to get us back to more bear carnage. Instead, Banks assaults us with one monotonously dull character and equally disinteresting subplot after another. Instead of focusing completely on the wrath of this untamed bear blitzed out of its mind, Banks feels more inclined to overwhelm her story with too many people and arcs that barely register any level of interest whatsoever. I shouldn't be looking for thoughtfully rendered characters in films of this type, but the sheer volume of them that pepper the script starts to take full attention away from what should be the main attraction - the cocaine bear! The caricatures on chief display here become more interchangeable by the minute, and the wacky quests they find themselves in leave a lot to be desired. And it's not that COCAINE BEAR is without talent. The actors here have been great in films before, but here they all range from serviceable to awful. Some know the kind of film that they're in, whereas others seem to have no clue. Sadly, they're all riddled with subpar comedic material that feels like its running on fumes far too early in the film. There's nothing wrong with COCAINE BEAR being a one joke/one trick pony, to be sure, but the resulting film doesn't score successfully-sustained amusing mileage out of its core concept.
What should have been a delightfully unhinged, consistently hilarious and campy B-grade exploitation picture instead just falls flat and seems to be gagging for air as it desperately tries to cross the finish line. COCAINE BEAR is limitlessly dumb, but the gore-filled tomfoolery here is just not inspired in the slightest, not even in a so bad, it's good kind of way. When my screening ended, I let out a big meh and an even bigger shrug of my shoulders. The eye-catching and the unbridled promise of this premise is pretty off the hook, to be honest, but the resulting film is so criminally unfunny and lacking in truly memorable horror schlock value that I'm left wondering what was the point. In the end, COCAINE BEAR simply didn't get high on its own supply...like...not even close. It's a triumph of having a totally bonkers idea for a film, but failing to execute and expand upon it.
Maybe it would have worked better if it was called COCAINE BEAR WITH A SHOTGUN ON A PLANE? There's a movie there...I think.