Not since Snakes On a Plane has a film title so instantly broadcasted its own brand of simplicity and self-awareness quite like this. As the title so elegantly suggests, this is the semi-true story of a 500 pound black bear that ingests millions of dollars worth of cocaine after a massive shipment is accidentally dumped over the forest of Chattahoochee, Georgia. All that coke sends the bear on a vicious rampage that leaves behind a long trail of carnage and white powder. While the unbelievable true story is, indeed, a true story, the truth is the bear died quickly after instead of going on a brutal coke bender. Given the revisionist creative liberties taken, its a relief that the filmmakers behind Cocaine Bear excel in maximizing the most outrageous potential of its savory premise.
It’s not inconceivable to think about all the ways a film like this could go wrong, so its a testament to director Elizabeth Banks that the film is as strong as it is. Penned by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), the script blends a handful of elements to an effective degree. The “nature strikes back” creature feature, akin to the post-Jaws exploitation flicks like Grizzly and Orca, the Killer Whale, the thrilling Spielbergian framework, adhering closest to Jurassic Park, and the campy, brutal gore of an early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson film. Warden’s writing, along with the delivery of its excellent cast and Banks’ direction, evokes its own gonzo sense of attitude.
Banks, with her third feature film after Pitch Perfect 2 and the 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, shows a great deal of skill with the outlandish tone, managing to evoke horror and brutality with belly laughs and zany sight gags. The filmmaker treats the bear like a slasher villain, going from one unlucky victim to the next, looking for its fix. In this case, however, that fix is more cocaine and human flesh. In that sense, Cocaine Bear tends to feel like an 80’s slasher with its abundance of skillfully crafted gore gags. For a studio film of this size, its rather surprising just how grotesque this thing gets. The film’s most intricate and showstopping sequence, itself a reference to an iconic moment in Jurassic Park, involves a chaotic chase between the bear and an ambulance, set to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. One highly tense standoff at the park visitor center creshendoes with a guffaw-inducing spectacle of blood and poor planning at the behest of the characters.
Director Banks assembles one hell of an ensemble cast that’s put to good use. Screen legend Margo Martindale is having a joyous time as the area’s park ranger. Keri Russell is a single mom searching for her daughter after she ditches school, with The Florida Project’s Brooklyn Prince playing the daughter. Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are the two lackeys sent to retrieve the coke for their boss, Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles). Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a gas as the dedicated detective searching for the missing drugs. With the added assist of Weta FX, the titular bear is brought to life by stunt performer Allan Henry who gives the apex predator a real presence amongst the absurdity.
Its hard not to respect the level of commitment brought by the filmmakers, who know exactly what kind of film this needed to be. It even ends with a remix of the Grandmaster Flash classic “White Lines” by rapper, and the self-appointed “cocaine’s Dr. Seuss”, Pusha T. The film does have its rough edges along the way. Despite the fairly tight pacing – the film clocks in at an ideal 95 minutes, the finale does drag its feet a bit before the grand showdown. There is also one clumsily achieved gore gag set in a tree, fit with awkward digital composites and shoddy edits, the latter likely at the behest of the ratings board.
Cocaine Bear is not a new classic of the genre, but it is a well-crafted and consistently witty horror comedy that skillfully embraces its own sense of absurdity. Elizabeth Banks blends grotesque carnage with cackling bursts of comedy that is made to be seen with a raucous crowd. To put it bluntly, if the sight of a bear snorting smack off a severed leg sounds intriguing, you’ll have a blast.