The words “based on a true story” don’t always carry all that much weight. One minor real-life event can result in the creation of something that’s essentially pure fiction, and the latest film from Universal Pictures falls under that category. Yes, a bear really did overdose on cocaine after getting into many bags that fell from a plane in Georgia in 1985, but the rest of Cocaine Bear is all invented. Fortunately, anyone willing to buy a ticket for a movie called Cocaine Bear will surely not mind the imagined addition of several deadly bear attacks.
Director Elizabeth Banks sets the tone from the very start with a quote about the behavior of bears attributed to Wikipedia, followed by a hapless accident that sees a criminal (Matthew Rhys) fall from a plane to his death — but only after throwing a few duffel bags of cocaine to the ground below, where they’re quickly discovered by a bear.
A vacationing couple is the first to encounter the bear after she has powdered her nose, and the Chattahoochee National Forest soon becomes populated by a number of different people searching either for solace in nature or the missing drugs.
Cocaine Bear is as much a gross-out comedy as it is a monster movie, and audiences should be fully prepared to see many characters’ limbs ripped off before they meet a grisly end. And this bear does not discriminate between the “good guys” and the “bad,” as a mix of people are picked off after coming between the rampaging bear and her cocaine, victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The cocaine has a clear effect on its title character, making her strong, angry, and capable of powering through just about anything with pure adrenaline and terrifying ferocity.
This film’s plot, which is hardly its most outstanding asset, weaves together several intersecting arcs that often overtake the bear when it comes to screen time. A mother (Keri Russell) leans into her own protective instincts and shows up in search of her 13-year-old daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who has skipped school to go paint rocks with her friend, Henry (Christian Convery). Two drug runners (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich) are dispatched to the forest by mobster Syd (Ray Liotta) to recover the missing coke, and a Tennessee detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) shows up hoping to catch them there. There’s also a park ranger (Margo Martindale), a safety inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and a trio of thieves roaming around the park.
That’s a startling assembly of talent in front of the camera, with director Banks behind it and the team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller producing. The result may not be Hollywood’s next great epic, but Cocaine Bear is smart enough to know what it is — a survival movie where a large chunk of the players aren’t going to make it — and Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden play to those strengths. The twisted fun comes from seeing how the cast ends up being unable to outrun this super-powered, murderous beast and laughing at the antics of the characters as they wander through the forest with ill-advised ideas about how to combat the beast pursuing them. It’s not supposed to be sophisticated entertainment, though it does veer towards immature and idiotic on several occasions.
Dismemberment and humor are served up in equal helpings in a comedy-thriller that may do for bears what Jaws did for sharks, provided audiences are able to take this film as seriously. Though the bear was created with visual effects, it’s far easier to believe the terror these people feel upon seeing it than to accept any of the bear’s behavior as realistic. There are multiple vicious and gory moments that will elicit just as many laughs as gasps of horror from audiences, who should take some solace in the fact that confronting this unlikely scenario with even a modicum of intelligence would surely yield better results.
The cast all understands what kind of movie they’re in and they commit to their characters. Syd, for instance, just wants to get his cocaine back, and Liotta, in one of his final film roles, goes for it here. Jackson and Ehrenreich approach their characters in a more lighthearted fashion, and it’s especially fun to watch the way in which they interact, as this harrowing experience cements their bond together. Prince, a breakout star from The Florida Project, is terrific, and Convery matches her well as the youngest — and hardly least responsible — members of this outrageous ensemble. Russell makes this film truly feel grounded in the ’80s, while Martindale continues to show that she’s capable of excelling in just about anything. Kristofer Hivju from Game of Thrones and Force Majeure also has an entertaining supporting part.
Cocaine Bear is a film that has been smartly marketed to attract a very particular audience, and therefore, it is well-positioned for success. Its title is sufficient to deter anyone from coming in with the wrong — or any — expectations, and consequently, it manages to lean into its most absurd and visually shocking moments, eager to prompt exclamations from audiences. Even if the harebrained storytelling and questionable intelligence of the characters prove to be a turn-off for some, the sound of others howling with laughter and shrieking at the screen should help this movie feel like a worthwhile ride.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Universal Pictures.