Addictively Gory Cocaine Bear Violently Paws at the Comedic Jugular
If nothing else, Cocaine Bear does not try to sell itself as something it is not. There is a bear. It is addicted to cocaine. It proceeds to kill several people. Gory, whacked-out weirdness transpires over an economical 95 minutes. That’s it. That’s the movie.
While it’s inspired by a true story, neither director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels) nor screenwriter Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen) appear to be remotely interested in telling some fact-based cautionary tale of nature run amok. Instead, this is a gleefully silly, unrelentingly violent lark filled with pulpy characters — good, bad, and various degrees of in-between — all caught in a situation that’s light-years beyond their control. It’s a schlocky dime-store novel from the grindhouse era given a neon-colored 1980s coat of paint, all delivered by a shockingly strong cast with a groovily deadpan aloofness reminiscent of Meatballs or Caddyshack.
Needless to say, that sort of stylistic decision on Banks’ part isn’t going to sit well with everyone in the audience. For those who don’t jibe with her comedic sensibilities, it’s likely they’ll want to throw up their arms in exasperation and leave the theater less than halfway through. But I dug what she was doing here, and it’s clear her talented cast bought into this treatment of the material as well. I laughed. I groaned. I squirmed during a couple of the goriest parts. I smiled every time the bear ate a brick of cocaine and rolled back its eyes in delirium.
Set in 1985, there are basically three competing narratives happening all at once, each of them coming into contact with the homicidal black bear, who inadvertently develops a ravenous drug habit. The first involves a pair of 12-year-old kids, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her best friend Henry (Christian Convery), playing hooky and taking an impromptu hike in the woods. The second concerns Dee Dee’s worried mother Sari (Keri Russell), who traipses off after them with a cantankerous National Parks ranger (Margo Martindale) and an animal rights activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) leading the way. The third follows low-level crooks Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who are sent to the middle of nowhere by the latter’s powerful drug dealer father Syd (Ray Liotta) to find red gym bags filled with cocaine before authorities can get their hands on them.
A few other characters come and go, most notably a determined detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who’s been trying to take down Syd for ages and sees the missing drugs as an opportunity to finally get his man, never expecting a violent black bear would get in his way. But these supporting players are mostly fodder for the beast, around to get dismembered immediately or to put up a brief fight before also succumbing to this unstoppable furry force with a fondness for ripping out throats and disemboweling those that get in its way.
Of the primary ensemble, while everyone does a fine job, Jackson and Ehrenreich are the only actors who make any sort of lasting impression. They have an easygoing back-and-forth that’s undeniably genuine. They’ve seen tough times, and while they want to be there for one another even during moments of inconsolable darkness, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing has made this difficult. Jackson and Ehrenreich bicker and banter as if they’ve been doing it all their lives, their Mutt-and-Jeff camaraderie so gosh-darn pure it’s almost exhilarating.
Banks isn’t a flashy director. After Pitch Perfect 2, Charlie’s Angels, and now this, I am finding it pretty clear she’s no fan of rapid-fire edits or overly complex visuals. Her style reminds me somewhat of Clint Eastwood’s in his early days behind the camera, with films like Breezy and Play Misty For Me, where less is more and in that she trusts her actors to do most of the heavy lifting. But I equally think it’s time she starts to challenge herself a bit more like he did (with the likes of High Plains Drifter, The Eiger Sanction, and The Outlaw Josey Wales), at least visually, and I’m curious to see if Banks will make that sort of creative leap.
I imagine there will be some who think she has done just that with this film. There are plenty of visual effects, and the film’s main character is a motion-capture creation performed by veteran stuntman Allan Henry (The Jungle Book, Avengers: Endgame). But Banks still keeps things rather subdued visually, more like an early Bill Murray or Chevy Chase comedy instead of a Peter Jackson or James Cameron special-effects extravaganza. While this approach works for this material more often than not, it can also suppress excitement and tension at annoyingly inopportune moments, most notably during the film’s strangely subdued climax.
Not that it matters. Cocaine Bear did almost everything it set out to do. There was a bear. It did cocaine. There were numerous mutilations. A collection of goofy people did increasingly goofy things. I cringed. I smiled. I laughed. Most of all, I was entertained, and that’s all that really matters.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)