The title says it all. Just like Snakes on a Plane was about just that, the new horror comedy Cocaine Bear is about a 500-pound bear on a jihad after coming upon a ton of cocaine dropped into rural Georgia on a drug run gone wrong. The bear ingests the coke, and soon you have a beast roaring out of control and devouring whatever human comes onto his path. It is all not to be taken seriously, but fortunately director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) is smart enough to give audiences hungry for a Jaws in the wilderness some nice scares mixed in with the laughs plus a bit more bang for their buck than just a marketable title.
With a game ensemble playing none-too-bright potential meals, the intelligence level of many on display makes The Dukes of Hazzard look like Schindler’s List. I was rooting for the bear, and actually had a good ol’ time doing just that in this movie that is set in 1985 and is a loving throwback to many of the movies of that era.
The remarkable thing is that it is all “inspired” by a true story in that year when a notorious drug runner abandoned his stash of cocaine after he and his passenger ejected from their plane. Andrew Thornton II aka “The Cocaine Cowboy” was an “Army paratrooper-turned-racehorse trainer-turned-narcotics cop-turned-DEA agent-turned-lawyer-turned-cocaine smuggler” — and alleged CIA agent to boot — who flew his dangerous cargo straight from Mexico, dropping it into the remote forests of Georgia for later pickup, often putting the plane on autopilot to crash after he bailed. This time something went wrong, and his parachute failed him. He was found dead on the ground, but the coke was missing.
Screenwriter Jimmy Warden was less interested in Thornton’s story, which is pretty fantastic stuff, than he was in the bear’s, who happened on to this stash and entered into a bloody, drug-fueled tour of terror. In real life, the incident led fairly immediately to the poor black bear’s death before he could eat anyone, but in Warden’s script and Banks’ treatment this is just the beginning as this monstrous CGI’d creature is emboldened by his coke trips, actually addicted for more, more, more and a rampage for the ages.
Then there are the humans.
Keri Russell plays Sari, a good nurse and mother whose 12-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her smitten friend Henry (Christian Convery) had gone on an outing to a waterfall and haven’t returned — especially worrysome as word of a bear on the loose gets around. She sets out to find them and discovers a cowering Henry high up in a tree, but where is Dee Dee? They are among a large group of people with different backstories all colliding with this bear.
Isiah Whitlock Jr. is Bob, a detective who leaves his beloved dog Rosette with a colleague Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart) while he uses this as an opportunity to finally set out to capture Syd (the late Ray Liotta), the drug lord he suspects is on the trail of the cocaine and who was Thornton’s boss. On Syd’s team are Daveed (O’ Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), a guy with problems of his own.
Then there is Ranger Liz (a scene-stealing Margo Martindale), who must deal with the increasingly perilous situation in her forest while at the same time looking for love with a clueless PETA-type animal activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who looks at all animals, on drug trips or not, as his friends and is blind to Ranger Liz’s affections. We also meet along the way a couple of paramedics, Beth (Kahyun Kim) and Tom (Scott Seiss); a group of knife-wielding punks called The Duchamps (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna) who might or might not be of use; and near the beginning a pair of Norwegian hikers, Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra), who look for selfies with the wrong bear (!) Look also for Russell’s The Americans co-star and real-life husband, Matthew Rhys, in a brief cameo as Thornton.
There isn’t a whole lot of dimension to any of the human characters, most are played very broadly (but it is always nice to see Martindale swing for the fences, as it is Liotta in this one of his final roles hamming up as the main human villain). But the creation of the bear itself by the wizards at WETA is mightily impressive, completely believable to the point I can smell an Oscar nomination (!) for Cocaine Bear, believe it or not. Kudos also to Allan Henry, who did the motion-capture performance element in creating “Cokey.”
Banks is a savvy director, never letting the intended humor camp things up too much but also well aware that this is a horror film with a flesh-chomping bear at its center and all the body parts that entails — and audiences have to buy all that or the soufflé falls. It doesn’t. You’ll have a blast.
Producers are Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Max Handelman, Brian Duffield, Aditya Sood and Banks. Universal releases it Friday exclusively in theaters, which is perfect. It needs to be seen with a crowd.
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