Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cast : Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Christian Convery, Brooklynn Prince, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Aaron Holliday, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra
Run Time : 96 min
Opens : 23 February 2023
Rating : M18
“Seeing a bear in the wild is a special treat for any visitor to a national park,” so begins the article “Staying Safe Around Bears” on the US National Parks website. “While it is an exciting moment, it is important to remember that bears in national parks are wild and can be dangerous. Their behaviour is sometimes unpredictable. Although rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death.”
And this is assuming they aren’t on cocaine.
The bear in Cocaine Bear, based very loosely on a true story, was.
It is 1985. Drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) dumps duffel bags full of cocaine out of an overloaded plane over Chattahoochee County, Georgia. A female black bear ingests cocaine from one of the duffel bags and chaos ensues. Sari (Keri Russell), a nurse and single mother, discovers her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school together with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to find a hidden waterfall in the forest. The kids chance across a brick of cocaine, unaware that the bear has also discovered the drugs. Thornton’s associate Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his employee Daveed (O’Seha Jackson Jr.) to attempt to recover the cocaine, lest he draw the ire of Colombian drug kingpins. Other characters including police officers Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Reba (Ayoola Smart), Norwegian hikers Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) and park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) get drawn into the fray.
Cocaine Bear was made to go viral online, for people to breathlessly share the trailer exclaiming “can you believe they made this?!” On that level, it works. The movie is often outrageous and entertaining, a gory, silly black comedy designed to elicit shrieks and laughter from the audience, which it probably will. The movie’s ensemble cast is game and likeable, with cannily chosen pairings including child actors Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery, and the duo of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich, playing off each other well. The late Ray Liotta, who died weeks after making this film, is a hoot as always as a cruel drug lord. Director Elizabeth Banks keeps things energetic and wacky, and the result is a cross between the Coen Brothers and the Farrelly Brothers. Other filmmakers might have played up the edginess, but Banks manages to find the 80s family adventure component amidst the dismemberments and copious drug use.
The movie runs a lean 96 minutes, which is the right length for something like this. Unfortunately, it is loaded with too many characters and parallel interweaving threads, such that we don’t quite spend enough time with each of the characters. While some might gravitate to the tone, others might be put off by it. The over-the-top humour can sometimes undercut the stakes, and while the movie’s tongue is very clearly in its cheek, it is still sometimes uncomfortable to see children put in the perilous situations depicted here. One can argue that the movie’s marketing, emphasising its basis in truth, is misleading. There was a black bear that ingested cocaine, but it did not go on a murderous rampage, and all the characters in the movie apart from Andrew C. Thornton II are fictional. That said, the filmmakers are well within their rights to use that morsel of fact as a jumping-off point for a wild, bloody story.
Key to the film working is the believability of the bear. The bear, nicknamed “Cokey” by the crew, was created by New Zealand-based visual effects studio Wētā FX and portrayed on-set by stunt performer Allan Henry, who trained under Andy Serkis. There are moments when the bear is frighteningly realistic, but many others – including an early moment when it’s scratching its back against a tree – when it looks kind of cartoony. The effects work more often than they don’t, and the moments when the bear is less than convincing can be excused by the overall ridiculous tone of the piece.
Summary: Cocaine Bear lives up to its promise of depicting a giant black bear on a coke-fuelled rampage. Often darkly funny and boasting an impressive ensemble cast, this is a movie that is constantly entertaining. Its combination of gross-out shock humour might not work for everyone, and the CGI bear that is its star is sometimes a little cartoony, but director Elizabeth Banks keeps things chugging right along. The “based on a true story” element of the story is more than a little oversold – a bear did ingest cocaine that was dumped out of a plane by a drug smuggler, but nothing after that really happened – but it serves as a great jumping-off point for a zany, gory adventure.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars