Director Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear fumbles the can’t-lose concept of a black bear high on cocaine rampaging through a state park.
As someone who enjoys Lake Placid (1999), Snakes on a Plane (2006), and Shark Night (2011)—and who loves Piranha (2010), Anaconda (1997), 47 Meters Down (2017), Phase IV (1974), and Deep Blue Sea (1999)—Cocaine Bear is right up my alley. Plus, it looks fun. In this uptight age of woke, nothing appeals to me more than a movie that just wants to show America a good time.
My other hope was that after director Elizabeth Banks humiliated herself with Charlie’s Angels (2019), and did so primarily by sucking all the fun and sex appeal out of a franchise that should only be about both, she would be desperate for a comeback to prove she could entertain.
To her credit, with Cocaine Bear, Banks tries. Much of the first half is spent mocking Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s wildlife activist Peter (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the doomed Timothy Treadwell). Cocaine Bear’s violence is unapologetic and frequently over the top. The story, thankfully, is a woke-free zone.
Unfortunately, it is also a sex-free zone. One of the timeless delights of genre films of this kind (see: Piranha, Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea) is the hot cha-cha. Cocaine Bear is R-rated. Why not go for it? Instead, we end up watching an R-rated exploitation flick with less sex appeal than those made-for-TV nature-run-amok movies from the 1970s, like Ants! (1977) and The Savage Bees (1976).
Man, I miss T&A.
Loosely based on a true story and set in 1985 (which avoids the cell phone issue), Cocaine Bear opens with a high-as-hell drug smuggler (an unrecognizable Matthew Rhys in a cameo) hurling duffel bags filled with cocaine out of an airplane. Then, he knocks himself out and plummets to his death.
The police find his body, add up two and two, and know drug kingpin Syd White (a slumming Ray Liotta) is behind it. Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), an honest police officer, goes to look for the missing dope, which he assumes (correctly) can be found on the aptly-named Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest (a real place).
Also on their way to Blood Mountain are Dee Dee and Henry, two kids skipping school. Then there are two of Syd’s soldiers, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Finally, for obvious reasons, local Park Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and Dee Dee’s mom Sari (Keri Russell), are brought into the mix.
The concept is simple: a big black bear high on cocaine and hunting for more cocaine kills everything in its path.
Other than a pretty great sequence involving the ranger’s office and an ambulance, Cocaine Bear is dull. The humor falls flat, the characters are never believable, and too much of the movie fails to make sense.
People do not shoot the bear when they have the chance. Dee Dee and Henry ingest (a lot of) cocaine to no noticeable effect. Rather than kill Dee Dee, the bear hides her away. Bob’s little foo-foo dog is brought into the picture but never threatened. A couple of characters disappear without us learning their fate. Sari is a nurse, but her skills are never used. The plane was loaded with at least 100 duffel bags of cocaine, but Syd seems satisfied with retrieving a few—even though his life is on the line.
One of the biggest problems is the cheap CGI. The bear is all CGI, as is the finale on a waterfall. Everything looks fake. A well-directed movie (like Anaconda) can make you forget the CGI. Cocaine Bear is not well-directed (or written). The camera rarely feels like it is in the correct place, the performances (and these are good actors) are uniformly bad, and you never feel any suspense or a growing sense of dread.
Out of a welcome 95-minute running time, 85 of those minutes make for a difficult sit.
The late, great Ray Liotta has four more posthumous releases scheduled. Cocaine Bear is dedicated to him, which is nice, but let’s hope a more respectable farewell is coming.
Universal’s Cocaine Bear arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on April 18.
Watch the trailer below: