As I watched a man slowly get his leg devoured by a strung-out bear, I couldn’t help but think, “This should be more exciting.” “Cocaine Bear” is a great pitch for a B-level animal attack movie along the lines of 1980’s “Alligator” or 1978’s “Piranha” — and there are times when the film, directed by Elizabeth Banks, reaches those frantic heights of sordid glory — but a strange sense of pacing and a bit too much restraint holds it back from being a true cult classic in the making. The intersection of the ‘80s, drugs and carnage should be a frenetic runaway train of excess, and sometimes it is, but it often feels like “Cocaine Bear” needed a few more shots of adrenaline (or rails of booger sugar) to liven up the proceedings.
Based on a true story of misplaced drugs and a hopped-up ursine, the film begins when a drug smuggler (Matthew Rhys) dumps millions of dollars worth of cocaine from his plane, setting off a chain reaction of events. With most of the coke landing in a national park, the smuggler’s boss (Ray Liotta) dispatches Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve the bags. Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who has tracked the smugglers for years, is on their trail to the Georgia forest preserve. Meanwhile, Sari (Keri Russell) is searching for her daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who skipped school to go play in the park with her friend, Henry (Christian Convery). While all of this is going on, a black bear has stumbled onto the drugs, turning it into an aggressive force that shreds anything and anyone in its path.
“Cocaine Bear” kicks off with the song “Jane” by Jefferson Starship. That may sound like a frivolous detail or simply an indication of the film’s great ‘70s/’80s soundtrack, but it’s a clue to the type of movie that Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden seem to want to make. The last time that song was used so prominently was in 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer” (in which Banks acted). The aural callback sets the tone not just of the same era but also of a similarly absurd venture with lots of unexpected comedy and sequences of excess. And there are many moments where that is true, with the grotesque mauling being such an over-the-top curveball that it becomes hilarious and deliriously entertaining. Helped by some truly impressive CGI (though an animatronic bear in parts would’ve been appreciated), these scenes are the heart of “Cocaine Bear” and the reason why folks will love and buzz about Banks’ film. But they also only account for about a third of the 95-minute runtime of “Cocaine Bear.” It’s a case of too much filler and not enough killer, which is especially irksome when the “killer” is so entertaining.
There are too many scenes of people just wandering the woods or folks traveling from point A to point B. These would be fine if they further fleshed out the characters or were occasions for other types of absurd comedy, but the characters are basically all one-note and can be summarized in a sentence. The only time the comedy really works outside of the bear-driven scenes is the stuff involving the kids (mostly thanks to Convery’s excellent dialogue and delivery) and some sequences where a local punk (Aaron Holliday) helps the crooks locate their drugs. Otherwise, it’s a lot of waiting around for the bear to return to either kill someone or simply act goofy on the titular substance.
All the actors acquit themselves well, even if the ensemble approach deprives it of a true protagonist or any specific immediacy. Margot Martindale shines as a hapless park ranger in an excellently written and executed role that allows for some of the most deliciously insane moments of “Cocaine Bear,” while Liotta also does a great job playing a heavy amidst the madness, committing to the reality of a put-upon gangster, which helps heighten the already absurd situation. Meanwhile, Banks finds a way to imbue the title animal with a sense of personality (beyond just keyed-up) that makes for increased comedy and a genuine threat to the characters. Having a fairly high body count (nine, though not all of them are victims of the bear) helps create that B-movie feeling and some sincerely shocking moments of hilarious brutality.
“Cocaine Bear” is a perfect example of the term “mixed bag.” The highs are incredibly high and impressively audacious, with unexpected gore and excellent comedic timing, but there are far too many lulls in the action and not enough fun outside of those bear sequences. Even if those slower scenes were melodramatic (fitting in with the far-too-sincere “nature strikes back” movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s), they’d at least provide a level of camp or something more engaging that’s non-bear related. “Cocaine Bear” will be remembered based on a few isolated moments that are raucously entertaining but not entirely representative of the whole movie. The best experience would probably be to watch it at home with a group of friends, allowing for some fun chatter during those deflating scenes followed by stunned silence mixed with uproarious laughter during the highlights. It’s weird to think that a movie filled with copious amounts of cocaine and gory dismemberment would require even more, yet here we are.
Starring: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Kristofer Hivju, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklynn Prince
Director: Elizabeth Banks