During the early days of film studios in the United States, one of the things that put Universal Studios on the map was its monsters movies. Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, all of these greats were born in the studio, and arguably were the force that helped make it what it is today. In the years since, many other greats have been added to that family, including Norman Bates, the shark from Jaws, assorted dinosaurs from Jurassic Park and even slasher legend Michael Myers. Now another legend has been added to that proud line-up, and its name is Cocaine Bear.
Cocaine Bear follows a failed drug run that ends with a payload of cocaine being dropped in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. As the authorities try to track down the drugs, an American Black Bear curiously ingests some of the shipment, sending it on a drug-fueled rampage. A movie like Cocaine Bear doesn’t aspire to be great cinema. Ironically, this is precisely the thing that makes the film so great. The film doesn’t have the most well-structured screenplay or the most well-defined characters, but it delivers exactly what its title promises.
Nature run-amuck films have always been a popular horror subgenre, with Universal themselves helming arguably the best examples of the genre with Jaws and The Birds. Typically an isolated community or group of characters finds themselves besieged by a predator or group of predators whose behavior is either unexplained as in The Birds, or is caused by some failure of mankind to keep their environment protected like in Them! or Eight Legged Freaks. Cocaine Bear falls into the latter category, supplementing toxic waste and atomic radiation with bricks and bricks of white powdered gold and setting its title character on an ensemble of blood-filled pinatas. The movie is very loosely inspired by an actual case, but while the real animal died of an overdose without killing anyone, here the bear is allowed to have revenge. It’s a revenge we as the audience are complicit in because the violence in the film is so over the top and fun.
The film is overflowing with ludicrous images. A bear doing a line of coke off a severed leg, a park ranger shooting a man in the head while aiming for the bear, someone collecting their friend’s severed fingers and pocketing them to be reattached later. Every violent set piece in the film is done in a spirit of sadistic fun, with no shortage of shocks or laughter in any of them. If that’s what you came to see, you won’t leave the theater disappointed.
But the film goes above and beyond delivering on its one-joke premise. One of the things that makes a film like this enjoyable is how the characters react to an absurd situation, such as with the classic film Tremors. Fortunately among this ensemble, there are a number of memorable characters.
Keri Russell plays Sari, a nurse who journeys into the wilderness to find her missing daughter after she and a friend are attacked by the bear. Sari offers a more serious survival story that, while it is offset by the humor of the film, still has some actual stakes. There is still humor in her story, mostly from her daughter’s friend Henry (Christian Convery) who provides some excellent levity while never being overbearing.
In contrast to her story are Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) as the son of the central drug runner and his best friend, sent out to retrieve the lost shipment. The two actors have remarkable chemistry and together provide the film with some of its funniest moments. O’Shea Jackson Jr. delivers a standout performance as the straight man of the group, trying to keep his neurotic friend together as their road trip to hell jumps the rails. Their odd couple banter provides some of the film’s biggest laughs even when the title bear is off massacring somewhere else.
The rest of the cast is colorful as well. Isaiah Whitlock Jr. is delightful as a detective who is both tracking the shipment and calling home to make sure a dog sitter is taking care of his beloved pet. Margot Martindale is excellent as an oafish and long-suffering park ranger accumulating progressively worse injuries after repeated encounters with the coked-out mammal. Even smaller parts like Scott Seiss and Kehyun Kim as a pair of paramedics are memorable. The film also features the final performance of Ray Liotta, who plays the drug kingpin and deadbeat father responsible for the disaster. Many fine actors, unfortunately, don’t leave the world of cinema with a career-high (pun intended) but Liotta, like everyone else in the film, seems to be having fun. It makes it very difficult to not join in.
There has definitely been a fair bit of 80s nostalgia in films recently, and since the story this is based on took place in 1985, we get a little bit of that here. Sometimes such efforts come across as overbearing, but Cocaine Bear doesn’t draw too much attention to it. Instead, details like era-appropriate cars and retro music are simply part of the aesthetic of the movie, adding to its charm. The score by Mark Mothersbaugh adds greatly to this, crafting a synth-wave orchestra that seems both out of place and a perfect fit for this outlandish romp. It captures the humor of the story, while also managing to still sound exciting and tense.
This isn’t a perfect film. Some may roll their eyes at such a statement, but even a movie about a coked-out black bear can still benefit from solid filmmaking. If there is a flaw with the film, it’s the script. While individual scenes are strong and engaging, they’re not always brought together in a cohesive way. Characters will come across important plot points by coincidence, arcs will be introduced and swiftly abandoned, characters will appear simply because the script requires it, and so on. Structurally, the script here is a bit scattershot. This is where the strength of the film’s comedy and not taking itself too seriously comes into play. Had this been a straight thriller without the humor, the story here would be a dismal failure. The humor is what saves it. The film at times feels like an odd little anthology of unrelated stories tied together by the rampaging bear. It doesn’t always come together, but the humor makes it worthwhile.
Cocaine Bear is a dumb movie, and it knows it. It leans into how dumb it is, pushing the envelope of its premise and taking the audience into new heights of ridiculousness with each passing scene. It’s not as effective as something like saw Tremors or An American Werewolf In London, but it’s hard not to crack a smile when you see the seemingly dead villain revived by a blizzard of white powder. Yes, the film has flaws in how the story is put together, with some of the plot threads being underdeveloped or straight-up abandoned, but the sheer earnest enthusiasm the film has for itself allows it to overcome these shortcomings. It manages this so well, that it almost becomes a thing of genius.
Our Rating – B
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