The words “based on a true story” have never held much weight in Hollywood and “Cocaine Bear” is about as reverent with history as a toddler is with drywall. In reality, nothing much transpired beyond the mildly amusing story of a bear consuming some cocaine and eventually expiring. No one was maimed in gory ultra-violence and there certainly wasn’t a circus of colourful personalities in the mix. Still, the premise of a black bear going on a murderous coke bender in the woods is novel enough to provide director Elizabeth Banks with a blank canvas on which she paints her bloody tale of man versus doped-up nature.
So, does “Cocaine Bear” have enough meat on its bones to justify a trip to the theatre? Or does it run through its supply too quickly? Let’s find out!
Due to the actual 1985 story of Cocaine Bear, also known as Pablo Eskobear, ending in a rather anti-climactic manner, Banks and writer Jimmy Warden decided to craft an entire narrative ecosystem around the titular character. Leading up to the creature’s rampage, the film sets up a series of misadventures involving drug dealers, kids exploring the woods and a detective following a lead. Surprisingly, the film spends a fair bit of time on the human characters, namely the criminals Daveed and Eddie Dentwood as we see them process Eddie’s grief when they’re not running and screaming away from Cocaine Bear. Alongside a burgeoning bromance, the story of single mother Keri tracking down her teenage daughter alongside her daughter’s adorably dense friend, Henry makes up the major part of the film.
These two eventually intersecting stories are a lot of fun to follow for the most part, even if they never develop beyond their function as thin narrative scaffolding to hold the film’s paper-thin plot. That being said, one or two sub-plots could have been omitted in lieu of more screen time with the furry beast bucking wild. The film’s attempt near the end to inject some emotional epiphany about toxic fatherhood feels about as clumsy as Matthew Rhys’ Andrew C. Thorton. It doesn’t detract in any way from the overall experience but it feels rather out of place with the entire film’s goofier and gorier tone.
Now that we’ve gotten through all those pesky non-ursine bipedals out of the way, let’s talk about the real star of the show: Cocaine Bear. Banks forgoes any sort of backstory or perspective of the creature, essentially treating it like a shark on land. Watching this 350-pound mass of teeth and claws sneak up on unsuspecting victims before ripping into them is about as fun as it can be. It never quite reaches the visceral experience of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio get maimed in “The Revenant” and it’s not aiming for that. It rides the fine line between physical comedy and horror-based gore with ease and style.
When you get up close and personal with Cocaine Bear, there are some visibly anthropomorphic features when it comes to its furry face. Its unsettling, uncanny-valley-like appearance is on par with the disturbingly unnatural features of Andy Serkis’ Baloo from Netflix’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle”. Its grotesque exterior plays well into the film’s uproarious sequences of vicious attacks by the Cocaine Bear. There are your ubiquitous scenes that follow the cookie-cutter mould of survival horror movie monster attack patterns. You know the typical it’s-behind-you or don’t-move moments that have become a staple of the genre. Much like what you’d find in Idris Elba’s “Beast”.
Where the film excels is when it simply lets loose and allows us to gaze upon the beast in all its hideous glory! The high point of the entire film is a lengthy chase sequence involving two paramedics and a less-than-capable park ranger trying to outrun the bear in an ambulance. It’s the perfect cocktail blend of tension, humour and action distilled into a wonderfully choreographed chase which spares no details in its carnage. Unfortunately, the film never quite reaches the heights of that scene but its climax will still have the audience wincing and guffawing in their seats as Cocaine Bear delivers some much-needed comeuppance.
Much like a wild animal let loose on a film set, all the actors here are just chewing the scenery and we love it! Keri Russell’s Sari is the only character who acts like a somewhat sane and responsible adult. Even the detective played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. acts like a complete moron as he takes time to gawk and marvel at the effects of narcotics on an adult black bear. O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich have excellent comedic chemistry together as Daveed and Eddie as they trade barbs and questions on their trek to recover their missing cocaine. The late and great Ray Liotta does an admirable job as the grumpy drug-dealing patriarch Syd Dentwood as he serves as the secondary antagonist of the film.
By far the most memorable character in the entire film has got to be Henry, played by Christian Convery who plays Gus in the Netflix series “Sweet Tooth”. Convery’s character’s delightfully sweet but dull child-like sensibilities are brilliantly contrasted against his age-appropriate propensity for vulgarity and his occasional bouts of sagacious lucidity. Margo Martindale also scores big points from us with her performance as the trigger-happy park ranger who does more harm than help when going up against the beast.
The status of Elizabeth Bank’s “Cocaine Bear” as a horror survival film with comedic elements or as a lengthy exercise in physical comedy utilising horror tropes is certainly up for discussion. What isn’t though is how much ridiculous fun the film offers. It wears its absurdity on its shoulder with pride and never relents during its relatively brief hour-and-a-half runtime. This furry and furious spectacle will have your heart racing and your gut aching, even if it never rises above its base animal instincts. If this film has taught us anything is that no one should try cocaine. Especially bears and Christian Convery.
You can now catch “Cocaine Bear” in cinemas today!
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