As “the title is the movie” movies go, Cocaine Bear is up there with Snakes on a Plane.
Plot: a large shipment of cocaine falls out of a plane and a black bear gets hold of it, tries it and likes it. It’s very moreish. Addicted, she (it’s a lady bear) is soon on a stimulant-induced rampage through the national park where she lives, in search of more of the parcel-taped bundles containing the precious white powder… and woe betide any human who gets in the way.
It was just Samuel L Jackson in Snakes on a Plane but there are a whole bunch of people at the wrong end of an angry bear in Cocaine Bear – the local ranger (Margo Martindale) and her do-goody, animal-loving sidekick (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), members of the drug gang keen to locate their lost contraband (Ray Liotta, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr), cops keen to retrieve the haul (Isiah Whitlock Jr, Ayoola Smart), a mother (Keri Russell) who’s lost her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her daughter’s friend (Christian Convery), plus a trio of local hooligans who call themselves the Doucheamps (an arthouse joke, I think, though the spelling could be Doochamps).
It’s an upscale version of those Sharknado-style films put out by the mockbuster studio The Asylum, with good actors, high production values, a computer graphic bear that doesn’t suck (except when it’s doing blow). As in her directing gigs to date (Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels), Elizabeth Banks does a good job keeping a large number of characters in play. She also keeps the pacing tight with some neatly conceived and executed mini-dramas bristling with tension. Banks has clearly watched Jaws a few times, and the fact that the whole thing is set in the mid 1980s really helps with that whole family-friendly Spielberg ambience she’s spoofing.
The tone is the thing. Inappropriate when at all possible, and light-hearted when limbs aren’t actually being removed. It’s funny. In one scene the Depeche Mode song Just Can’t Get Enough plays after the bear has done something particularly appalling chasing after its high, which at this point is inside an ambulance containing a horrifically wounded person.
The splatter is epic. Flesh is gouged, limbs are lost and entrails are unspooled like strings of sausages. And yet it’s not the bear’s fault. There’s a cutaway to Nancy Reagan and her “just say no” campaign at one point. Perhaps inadvertently, Banks and co have made the best anti-drugs propaganda movie you’re probably ever likely to see. The carnage is epic, the message ditto.
The bear isn’t the bad guy, the drugs are. And after the drugs come the drug dealers in the league table of culpability. This was one of Ray Liotta’s last performances and he brings the goods as the man who eventually goes in to finish the job that his boys (Ehrenreich, Jackson Jr) have singularly failed to do.
But then there are a lot of good performances here, proving that if you’re going to do a thing you might as well do it properly (note to The Asylum – better actors) and so confident is it that it can introduce talent of the calibre of Hannah Hoekstra (a big Hollywood moment for the Netherlands actor surely just around the corner) and Kristofer Hivju (big gingery Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones) and then barely use them.
As with cocaine itself, a law of diminishing returns applies and towards the end the prospect of yet more banter and another eviscerated victim just doesn’t quite have the same appeal as at the outset. But fun has been had on the way, and Banks and debut writer Jimmy Warden have managed to keep the ball in the air pretty much to the end.
And all based on a true story, though in real life the bear in the park found the cocaine, consumed a huge quantity of it… and died.
Cocaine Bear – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021