Cocaine Bear Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Stars: Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, O’Shea Jackson jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Ray Liotta, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock jr, Aaron Holliday, J B Moore, Leo Hanna, Ayoola Smart, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Matthew Rhys, Scott Seiss, Kahyun Kim.
Grizzly on crack?
Grizzly was the 1976 film starring Christopher George (of tv’s The Rat Patrol fame) hunting a giant 15-foot rampaging grizzly bear in a state forest. It was one of that cycle of so-called “creature features” with their man versus nature narratives that were popular in the 70s in the wake of Jaws.
Cocaine Bear is nothing like that film, but it is entertaining enough although it is not to be taken seriously. And like 2006’s Snakes On A Plane it delivers on what the title promises. And with a brisk running time of 95 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Cocaine Bear was inspired by a true story that happened in 1985. A drug runner threw duffle bags full of bricks of cocaine out of an areophane as it flew over a national forest in Georgia, and then jumped out of the plane. But his parachute failed to open, and he plummeted to the ground with a duffle bag full of cocaine. And apparently a black bear in the forest stumbled upon one of these bags full of cocaine, bit into it and overdosed on the drug. In real life the bear died. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen) has used that premise as the inspiration for this film but has taken enormous liberties with the material.
Cocaine Bear is largely set in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, where the 500-pound bear gets a good whiff of the drug and becomes addicted and searches for more. As she roams through the forest in search of cocaine she attacks anyone who gets between her and the cocaine. The first victims are an unlucky pair of European hikers (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra).
The park is full of a diverse range of interesting characters who will interact with the bear in one way or another. There are a trio of young punks (Aaron Holliday, J B Moore and Leo Hanna) who are in the forest to do mischief. There are two gangsters – Daveed (O’Shea Jackson jr, the son of Ice Cube) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich, from Solo: A Star Wars Story, etc) – who have been sent by local drug king pin Syd White (Ray Liotta, from Goodfellas, etc) to retrieve the drugs. Eddie is still grieving over the recent death of his wife and is hardly focused on the job. Dedicated St Louis detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock jr, from The Wire, etc) is also on the trail.
There is also Sari (Keri Russell, from tv series The Americans, etc), an overworked nurse and divorced mother who has gone to find her thirteen year old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, from The Florida Project, etc) who has skipped school and headed into the forest with her best friend Henry (Christian Convery, from Playing With Fire, etc) to paint a waterfall near Blood Mountain. And there is also Liz (Margo Martindale, from August: Osage County, etc) the foul-mouthed gun toting park ranger who comes across like a Dirty Harriet type. Along with her animal activist boyfriend Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, from Modern Family, etc) she guides Sari through the park to help find her daughter.
Cocaine Bear has been directed by Elizabeth Banks, who flexed her muscles with the recent 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot and Pitch Perfect 2. Her direction is quite muscular as she tries to maintain a balance between the horror and the humour, and she suffuses the material with an 80s style grindhouse aesthetic. The blood, gore and dismembered limbs are quite icky but are played mainly for laughs here.
The setting is great and has been nicely shot by cinematographer John Guleserian (Love, Simon, etc), although apparently much of the film was shot in Ireland. The CGI rendered bear is, for the most part, quite realistic looking thanks to the digital wizardry of WETA, who combine motion capture with CGI effects.
The performances are serviceable, and the ensemble cast do what is required of them. Martindale brings plenty of humour to her role and is one of the best things here, while Russell brings a feisty quality to her Sari, who is a bit like a mother bear herself who will do anything to protect her cubs. This is one of the final films for Liotta and he looks quite ill here, and fittingly the film is dedicated to his memory.