Release: Friday, February 24, 2023
Written by: Jimmy Warden
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Keri Russell; O’Shea Jackson Jr.; Alden Ehrenreich; Isiah Whitlock Jr.; Margo Martindale; Ray Liotta; Brooklynn Prince; Christian Convery
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Touting a game cast, an interesting director in Elizabeth Banks and just enough gore to please Quentin Tarantino, Cocaine Bear has the ingredients to be a rollicking good time. Adding to the novelty is the opportunity to see Ray Liotta in one of his final roles. Frustratingly several less interesting elements compete for your attention in an already paper-thin narrative loosely based on a real event.
In September 1985 a small airplane trafficking cocaine from Colombia went down in southern Appalachia. The body of the pilot, whose parachute failed to open, was found in a Tennessee neighborhood and the goods scattered across the TN/GA state line in the wilderness. A curious black bear, some 300 pounds lighter than the impressive CGI behemoth we see here, happened upon the packages and was found dead soon thereafter, its stomach stuffed full of powder.
Notably no one was hurt or killed, which of course doesn’t make for a particularly eventful movie, so embellishment is needed. What if instead of dying the bear went on a rampage in search of its next fix? That’s the long and short of this willfully silly story. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It does, however, need to be entertaining but the sweet release that comes with watching an ursine coke fiend go apeshit is hard to come by, particularly in the first half. In fairness, Banks attempts to craft some level of humanity, but it also seems like she’s over-engineering a simple adrenaline rush.
The cast of Hollywood actors feels a little distracting for a movie taking place essentially on a hiking trail (we’re mostly hanging out at Blood Mountain, a popular hiking spot in northern Georgia) but the tradeoff is professional actors can make believers out of you, no matter how silly the situation. Stand-outs include Alden Ehrenreich moping around as a drug dealer with a broken heart, Margo Martindale juggling her romantic life with her duties as a Chattahoochee park ranger and Ray Liotta sweating hard from the heat he’s feeling from his concerned Colombian bosses.
Keri Russell gets an “emotional” arc as a single parent in pursuit of her runaway daughter (Brooklynn Prince), who skips school with her friend (Christian Convery) to have adventures in the woods, only to become the first (humans) to encounter one of the packages strewn throughout the foliage. Far less interesting is Isiah Whitlock Jr. as an overzealous detective in desperate need of a doggie sitter as he jumps jurisdictions to track down these dopey dealers.
At BEARly 90 minutes in length it is a surprisingly tedious wait for things to get good. You need some reason to care about developments but maybe a short film would have suited this material better. Cocaine Bear delivers what is expected in random bursts. However, the campiness Banks is clearly going for is reduced rather than enhanced by banal observations about relationships and the evils of drugs. At least the human-animal interactions make that of The Revenant look like a date with Winnie the Pooh.
Moral of the Story: Just say ‘No’ to this crazy-but-not-nearly-as-crazy-as-it-could-have-been comedy-thriller. Cocaine Bear is a film at odds with itself — not quite camp enough to feel like a legitimate B-movie and too limited from a script standpoint to be considered anything other than a gimmick. The so-named Pablo Escobear looks good enough for a close-up though. Spectacular CGI work from the guys over at Wētā FX.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “I trusted you! The state of Tennessee trusted you! The United States of America, it trusted you!”
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