‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: The Titular Bear Steals the Show in This Reasonably Entertaining High-Concept Horror Comedy
A bear ingested cocaine.
Now, these few words alone are more than enough to convince me this is going to be a blast of a what-would-happen-if-a-bear-consumed-cocaine movie. Believe it or not, ‘Cocaine Bear’ turns out to be based on a true story (!) No, I kid you not because this otherwise stranger-than-fiction story actually took place on September 11 back in 1985, when Andrew Thornton II, an ex-narcotics officer-and-lawyer-turned-drug smuggler, attempted to carry a heavy load of approximately 400 kilos of cocaine while parachuting out of a Cessna plane.
He ended up dead after the fall went wrong, and a 175-pound black bear found a duffel bag that Thornton II had dumped earlier prior to his death. The bear ingested the contents of the bag, which turned out to be cocaine and died. The bear’s corpse was later found, and the cause of its death as revealed by the eventual autopsy, includes cerebral hemorrhaging and respiratory failure, among others.
But since ‘Cocaine Bear’ is marketed as a mix of dark comedy and horror, the faithfulness of its true-story material is only limited up to a certain point. The film gets off to a promising start with the aforementioned plane-jump sequence, with Matthew Rhys pulling off a brief but memorable cameo appearance as Andrew Thornton II. Let’s just say instead of giving it a straightforward big-screen treatment, the film goes for the laugh.
As the story continues, which takes place prominently in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, we are introduced to several characters, beginning with a pair of foreign tourists (Kristofer Hivju’s Olaf and Hannah Hoekstra’s Elsa) who first stumbled upon the titular black bear. The film also includes Sari (Keri Russell), a divorced mom working as a nurse who finds out her 12-year-old daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), skips school with her buddy, Henry (Christian Convery) so she can go on a hike near Blood Mountain to paint a picture of a waterfall.
Meanwhile, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) assigned his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), and fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the missing cocaine stash. Complicating matters is Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a local detective who’s hot on the trail to apprehend Syd for years. All of these characters eventually come across the same bear, who’s on a coke-fueled rampage to kill anyone in its path.
I didn’t expect ‘Cocaine Bear’ would be in the hands of Elizabeth Banks, the director behind the god-awful ‘Charlie’s Angels’ reboot and, of course, the 2015 sequel of ‘Pitch Perfect 2’. But thankfully, she redeems herself from ‘Charlie’s Angels’ with a reasonably fun and
grizzly grisly horror-comedy mayhem in ‘Cocaine Bear’ that she directed from ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ Jimmy Warden’s screenplay.
The CGI bear, which is brought to life by Peter Jackson-founded Weta FX, is adequate enough while it has surprisingly tons of playful and, at times, no-nonsense personalities than all the human actors combined. Of course, this wouldn’t have worked without the participation of Allan Henry, a protégé of Andy Serkis, who is responsible for the bear’s amazing motion-capture performance.
No doubt the titular bear is the scene stealer here, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the characters are forgettable. Keri Russell delivers a decent turn as the worried mom, Sari, and so do the kids, played by Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery, particularly during the scene where the two found a block of cocaine. Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. give respectively entertaining support as Eddie and Daveed and Banks also added a few worthwhile cameo appearances, notably Margo Martindale as the park ranger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s ‘Modern Family’ fame as the animal-rights activist as well as Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss, who play the paramedics.
Then, there’s Ray Liotta, who unfortunately gave his final performance before his untimely death at the age of 67 in May last year. Sure, it’s far from his great performance that matches the likes of ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Unlawful Entry,’ and ‘Narc.’ But it’s hard to deny he has that distinctive personality to play a drug kingpin/mob boss type of role, and it was a sad fact that he passed away.
As a horror genre, Banks doesn’t shy away from gore and graphic violence. We get to see the likes of chewed-off limbs, a blown-off head, and lots and lots of blood. And let’s not forget the extended set-piece that begins with the paramedics arriving at the ranger station and, later, a have-to-be-seen-to-be-believed chase sequence between a bear and an ambulance.
It was easily the most exhilarating moment that combines campy fun and gory horror, where I wish Banks would press on more for this kind of amped-up set-piece. Because it sure makes me feel like she’s missing the opportunity here to embrace the wild premise wholeheartedly. This is especially true with the less-than-satisfying third act, as if the film is running out of cocaine, I mean, steam, and some of the broad storytelling approach earlier on that scattered around here and there.
Maybe I’m expecting too much of ‘Cocaine Bear’ to end up something in the vein of peak Sam Raimi’s wacky and anything-goes horror-comedy fest (i.e., ‘Evil Dead II’). But at least kudos still go to Elizabeth Banks for fulfilling the promise of the title, even if she doesn’t reach the potential level of greatness.