Once upon a time, circa 1985, there was a beautiful black bear that lived in a national park in the state of Georgia. One day, strange brick-like objects fell from the sky and burst open, exposing a white powder the bear could not resist eating. In the real life version of this tale, ingesting the white powder (35 pounds of it) caused the 175-pound beauty to die of a drug overdose, but in Cocaine Bear, actor-turned-director Elizabeth Banks’ gleefully gory, naughty but tame horror comedy, the bear turns into a marauding beast with one goal: finding more coke.
This is not a film Nancy Reagan would have screened for Ronnie at the White House, especially after seeing the part, early on, when two 12-year-olds (Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery) dare one another to sample (by taste) the cocaine they find in the forest while ditching school. Dee Dee and Henry will quickly spit out the foul tasting powder but Banks (Pitch Perfect 2; Charlie’s Angels) and screenwriter Jimmy Warden have made their point: this is a movie that isn’t afraid to offend in its quest for a belly laugh. Those two kids, in fact, will turn out to be much smarter than the hapless adults who follow in their wake, a fair number of whom will end up missing an arm or a leg after making the mistake of coming between the bear and the various bricks of cocaine strewn throughout the forest.
One part Jaws and many parts Snakes on a Plane, Cocaine Bear is talkier than it should be and peaks with a virtuoso mid-film scene of carnage, but an able cast do their best to keep us amused in between kills. The great Margo Martindale, with her gift for suppressed grievance, has a grand time as an embittered Park Ranger who plans to spend the day wooing a moronic animal rights activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), only to see that dream waylaid by the arrival of Sari (Keri Russell), who’s looking for her daughter, Dee Dee, and her friend, Henry. (Russell’s husband, Matthew Rhys, plays the parachuting drug runner in the film’s prologue.)
Meanwhile, a St. Louis drug lord (Ray Liotta, in his final role) sends his sad-sack son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), and trustworthy fixer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to Georgia to retrieve as much dope as they can find. A Missouri detective (a marvelous Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) follows, although he’s distracted with worry for the newly acquired shelter dog he had to leave behind. (He didn’t expect to care so much.)
Ehrenreich, whose career has taken some hardscrabble dips (Solo: A Star Wars Story) since his dazzling performance as a trick-rope twirling cowboy in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, has a sly first scene here, but he can’t do much with the rest of Eddie’s story, which mostly finds him walking through the woods with Daveed in search of lost coke. A grounding presence, Jackson presents Daveed as a drug lord’s muscle who is nevertheless open to the idea of being a better man. Mostly, the two men walk and walk and walk, and play straight men to “Stache” (Aaron Holliday), a punk kid who knows where a duffle of cocaine is hidden. Stache is a fool and a philosopher and Holliday, a relative newcomer, proves adept at jazzing up the dullest storyline in the film.
It’s the newcomers, in fact, who steal Cocaine Bear from the pros, particularly comedian Scott Seiss, who has the good fortune to play a paramedic who must search a blood-drenched park ranger’s cabin for more victims. This scene leads to an ambulance truck chase between bear and humans that is a directorial triumph for Banks, and the sequence most likely to be cheered by blood-thirsty audiences– but it’s Seiss who makes it sing. His reactions, which go from deadpan to full-fledged freak-out, are priceless, and very funny.
The lingering high, as it were, of the ambulance sequence, may be sufficient for moviegoers to forgive a third act that gets bogged down in more walking and more talking and not enough bear. It doesn’t seem a spoiler to say that Liotta’s drug boss, Syd, decides to come to Georgia and take matters into his own hands. Always a team player, Liotta is stuck with an unfunny character whose dialogue has no snap. And Banks and team might have done well by Liotta to edit out the more gruesome aspects of Syd’s final showdown with the bear.
In the end, there is a half-assed setup for a sequel, but since they never made Snakes on a Plane 2 (which I could have gotten behind), Cocaine Bear may not prove as lasting as the real bear that inspired it. The next time you’re in Lexington, Kentucky, take Exit 113 off I-75 and look for the Kentucky Fun Mall. The real Cocaine Bear, long stuffed, and once owned, reportedly, by Waylon Jennings, is there, and ready to greet all.
Editor’s note: The disclaimer below refers to advertising posts and does not apply to this or any other editorial stories. LA Weekly editorial does not and will not sell content.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.