Killer animal movies being based on true events are usually few and far between beyond the occasional urban legend and exaggerated occurrence – however, now we have Cocaine Bear, a black comedy that takes the true story of a 175-pound bear in Northern Georgia that died after ingesting a bag of cocaine after a bungled drug smuggling operation. Of course, watching a majestic animal snuffle it’s way through a fortune of china white and then snuffing it is hardly cinematic, so actor-turned-director Elizabeth Banks has instead expanded on this tale to include desperate drug barons, vicious maulings, lost kids and the titular beast going on a rampage while continuously tripping the light fantastic.
The result is something that could accurately be described as Grizzly meets The Pineapple Express as Banks aims takes the killer animal genre to an all new high – literally.
It’s 1985, and wacked out drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II has something of a work related incident while dropping a shipment of coke out of a plane which results in him not opening his parachute as he hurtles toward Knoxville, Tennessee. However, while Bob, a local detective correctly sumises that the shipment belongs to St. Louis kingpin Syd White, the majority of the drugs have landed in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest and has been promptly been eaten by a female American black bear who immediately becomes about as aggressive as Russell Crowe during a paparazzi convention.
After mauling her way through a couple of hikers, the coke dusted bear heads off to find more drug packets to gorge on and subsequently wanders into the lives of a random group of people who are linked (either directly or indirectly) to the drug haul.
Dee Dee and Henry are two kids who are skipping school who are bothered by the buzzing bruin after trying some of the discarded cocaine themselves and after their disappearance, Dee Dee’s worried mother, Sari, goes looking for them. Stopping by the Stranger’s office in order to get help from the shockingly ineffective Ranger Liz and her crush, Peter, Sari discovers that her daughter has been carried off, but as she frets, Daveed and Eddie enter the picture in order to try and gather up the drugs to help Syd White to save face with his suppliers. Eddie, who is Syd’s son, is mourning the death of his wife and, in the throes of depression, wants to quit the business while Daveed just wants to do his job, but they’ll first have to traverse a clueless trio of wannabe thugs called the Duchamps Gang and Detective Bob before tangling with the bear who is dead set with getting her next fix and who’s racking up quite the body count.
Making a movie about a killer bear who is blitzed off its tits isn’t exactly what you’d expect from the director of Pitch Perfect 2 and the 2019 punt at Charlie’s Angels, but Elizabeth Banks manages to belt out a nicely above par black comedy while mixing in some surprisingly visceral animal attacks to boot. Kicking off things with an always welcome blast of Jefferson Starship’s Jane (possibly a nod to her role in forgotten 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer), we are seemingly promised a drugged out assault on the senses as a aggressive bear chews it’s way through an oddball cast as it impressively trips balls – and yet while we do get some cheer-worthy material in the “crazy shit” department, Banks makes sure that we also are familiar with her cast and their noticably random subplots.
For the most part, it works just fine as the disparate characters all wind their individual ways in and out of the bear’s herculean narcotics habit with such actors as Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and (in his final role) Ray Liotta to keep things moving despite its rather erratic focus – however, while Cocaine Bear is undeniably a good time, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that for all of its bizarre plot turns, the movie just wasn’t crazy enough.
That’s not to say that crazy doesn’t happen – its not called Codine Bear – but in an endearing quirk of fate, it turns out Elizabeth Banks is really good at staging exaggerated, sustained animal attack sequences that nail the deranged tone the movie is trying to achieve perfectly. Be it her judicious usage of graphic gore (partially severed wrists and blown out skulls are all on parade here), or the fact that each bear encounter is nicely varied, they all maintain a solid balance of drawing out dark chuckles and genuine intimidation as the bear takes a break from inhaling and starts inpaling. The CGI on the beast is great and the knockout scene where it chases down an Ambulance full of screaming people is absolutely cracking – as is a moment when it climbs a tree in order to try and get its claws into Modern Family’s Jessie Tyler Ferguson – but much like the hopelessly addicted titular animal, you want more.
However, what we get is an ensemble of numerous quirky characters all gradually converging as their arcs intertwine with one another and while they are admittedly amusing enough, you just kinda want Banks to hurry up and get back to the bear. Maybe if the movie had focused more on just being a more straightforward parody of a killer animal movie (god knows Grizzly and Prophecy could both have used a couple of intentional yucks), then it might have hit the heights of the impressively gonzo trailer, but I just couldn’t repress my slight sighs of disappointment everytime we moved away from the carnage to focus on Eddie’s depression, or Bob’s concern about owning a frou-frou dog, or Sari’s attempt to save Dee Dee.
It’s not that any of these deliberately disjointed plot lines are bad, it’s just that they make the bear part of the ensemble instead of being front and center, where she belongs. However, the fact that the bear herself is treated with humanity means that the movie plays way more like the sardonic wit of the original Lake Placid than the immature gore frenzy of Piranha 3D and those expecting a senses searing maul-fest should probably check their expectations at the door.
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve seen so many killer animal movies that Bank’s barbiturate bloated bear needed to be somehow even more chaotic to shake up my jaded ass – maybe throw in a lion utterly fucked on PCP or an alligator seeing God on LCD and my ravenous desire for more lunacy would have been sated.
Genuinely fun, Cocaine Bear may provide exactly what it promises, but it’s inability to reach ever more insane heights means that, like most epic drug trips, you’ll be unlikely to remember fuck all of it later.