Cocaine Bear delivers on its promise of a 90 minute film where a bear does cocaine
It’s telling that the Elizabeth Banks-directed Cocaine Bear opens with a needle drop of Jefferson Starship’s “Jane.” Not only is the use of Wet Hot American Summer’s unofficial theme song a cute nod to Banks’ early breakout role in that movie, it’s also an effective hint of what kind of ride we’re in for: expect a game ensemble cast and lots of absurdity, and don’t take anything too seriously.
Dropping a David Wain reference right off the bat is an exciting early promise—one the movie very nearly lives up to. Banks’ movie and Jimmy Warden’s script don’t quite reach the giddy heights of the film that Cocaine Bear clearly takes spiritual inspiration from. However, it’s still a satisfying cheeseburger of a movie; not exactly substantive, but entertaining, trashy fun nonetheless.
Based on actual events (in that there was actually a black bear that ingested a duffel bag of smuggled cocaine in the Georgia woods in 1985), Cocaine Bear follows the fallout of a drug drop gone wrong. We open on an ill-fated smuggler (Matthew Rhys, in a very funny cameo) unloading several hundred kilos of cocaine from an airplane before knocking himself out and unceremoniously falling to his death.
Most of the drugs land in the Chattahoochee National Forest, where they are found and devoured by said bear. The bear goes on a coke-fueled murder spree, encountering pre-teens (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), a single mom (Keri Russell), a park ranger (Margo Martindale), drug dealers trying to recover their lost product (Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Ray Liotta), and the cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) tracking them down.
Banks gets solid performances across the board from her stacked cast. Special commendations go to Jackson, who continues to be a charming and committed onscreen presence, and Convery, who delivers his expletive-laced lines with guileless aplomb. Of any of these characters, his would most easily fit in at Wet Hot’s Camp Firewood, with Russell’s Sari coming a close second. Martindale, as always, brings heft and humor to her professionally and romantically frustrated character.
Cocaine Bear runs into trouble, however, with the many plots it follows. While Warden’s script has some great bits in it, it’s also sincere enough that even with Banks’ heightened take on the material, the movie still wants us to invest in these characters and their relationships. That’s tough to do when the film jumps around so much, following different stories until they finally converge. As a result, the characters aren’t as developed as they could be (Whitlock gets especially short shrift), and a few of Cocaine Bear’s running jokes don’t have the payoff they would if we spent more time with the characters making them.
The movie works best in the scenes structured like individual sketches, like the cold open in which a couple of Scandinavian hikers (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra) get attacked or the moment a pair of doomed EMTs (Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim) arrive at the ranger station and unwittingly become part of a bear-induced bloodbath. These are effective mini-stories that relate to the main concept—bear on cocaine—and the immediate consequence—murder bear—without requiring us to spend more than a few minutes with the characters.
Banks’ instinct to make Cocaine Bear in the vein of Wain’s cult classic is a good one, and her cast is happy to follow that lead. However, the script doesn’t quite fit that idea well enough to work.
Despite that, the movie still delivers on its promise in ways that will satisfy your bloodlust and desire for a laugh. The bear does indeed do cocaine, and gets in some pretty goofy kills. There’s potential for an even better movie in here, but the one we’ve got isn’t too shabby.