Humans versus nature can easily deliver the goods on film. Just last year, Idris Elba took on a furious lion. A father-daughter duo had to fend off deadly alligators a few years ago. And how many stars have dealt with sharks at some point in their career? Cocaine Bear (based on a true story, as the film wants you to be sure to know) seems like an easy enough line drive of a premise. “What if a bear ingested a bunch of cocaine and went on a rampage?” While there’s fun to be found in director Elizabeth Banks’ horror-thriller-action(?)-dark comedy, it comes in sporadic form. With that in mind, it’s not as though a bear being powered by yayo doesn’t yield exciting results. I just wish the effort wasn’t so uneven.
Things kick off with a drug smuggler (a fitting cameo) dumping a bunch of duffel bags full of cocaine over Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. As a result, drug dealer Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta, in his final performance) tasks his people (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich) to recover the lost goods. Others are also in the area for various reasons, including two kids (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), a mom (Keri Russell), a park ranger (Margo Martindale), a wildlife expert (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Complications arise, as a 500 lb. black bear has found some of the goods and, upon sampling plenty of snow itself, wants a lot more…as well as blood.
Going in, I knew I’d have to balance my skepticism against the prospect of something that should be up my alley (giant beast goes crazy and attacks people). Knowing the actual events, I wondered if turning the story of a bear that most likely died pretty quickly from cocaine consumption into an oddball slasher flick of sorts would feel…appropriate. Of course, with producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) on board, I was prepared for a certain level of absurdity. Credit where it’s due, when this movie is cooking, there is a lot to enjoy based on the comedic timing of certain performers and mostly effective bear visual effects handled by Weta Digital.
So yes, if there was ever a moral concern I was holding at the back of my mind, I got over that quickly enough. The tone of this film certainly wants to help itself fit alongside films such as Tremors, Piranha, and Arachnophobia. Set in 1985, it was a relief to see Cocaine Bear scale back from 80s overload, despite a few choice tracks and some brightly colored costumes. What is here is a feature looking to break away from reality to show off the exaggerated nature of a black bear that is high out of its mind, and how it interacts with this set of characters. Given how things play out, though, maybe digging into the times more may have benefited.
There’s not necessarily an issue with having a variety of performers on hand to bring an assortment of energy to the movie. However, Cocaine Bear is plagued with the problem of starts and stops. When focusing on the criminal angle, Jackson and Ehrenreich have a fun chemistry, and the momentum is in place to keep the objective in mind. The kids’ side of things features a flimsy setup, but at least the stakes feel clear. Trying to make room for other characters, however, including a random trio that forms a gang of hoodlums in the woods, really found a way to upset the pacing.
Also not helping – a real lack of situational awareness. The geography of this film is so strangely off, making it hard to track where things and people are in relation to each other. That can be fun as far as a bear that acts like Jason Vorhees popping out from any direction. Still, it becomes more of an issue when trying to track multiple groups simultaneously. Will this be a major issue for filmgoers who simply want to see a bear acting crazy thanks to a bunch of nose candy? Perhaps not, but there’s also the outcome of said mayhem.
While the film earns its R-rating for some choice moments of gore, Cocaine Bear should have gone further. We see several severed limbs, but the framing of the many bear kills/maulings was all over the place. Given how the film shows us the bear right away, it’s not as though we’re watching Jaws and are in need of preserving the tension. And yet, some very awkwardly framed scenes that would be delivering the gory goods in the hands of other filmmakers end up feeling poorly staged or annoyingly claustrophobic.
There are some inspired bits. While it could have been stronger, a bear vs. ambulance chase has plenty of humor to go with the chaos. A real moment of terror involves how this bear can emerge from the shadows. And then some genuinely funny bits follow the bumbling nature of some of these people as they make their way through the woods or have badly timed showdowns. As stated, for a 95-minute feature, Cocaine Bear is uneven in a way that drags what should be a reasonably energetic film down. However, I can’t deny that some inspired bits of lunacy at least keep it watchable.
Is there a version of this story that could have truly captured what I was looking for in the cinematic adaptation of a bear that gets way too high on blow? Well, yes, probably. I’ve seen enough brilliantly schlocky genre flicks to know what means could be employed to nail this idea. As far as Cocaine Bear goes, it’s amusing, but I know I could have gotten more out of it, were it in sturdier hands. The bear still looks good, though, and the cast is certainly game. I’m sure the vision, dreams, and passion were in the right place, but I was fine exiting this white-line highway and getting away from that poor bear.