Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writer: Jimmy Warden
Stars: Kerri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta
Synopsis: An oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists, and teens converge on a Georgia forest where a huge black bear goes on a murderous rampage after unintentionally ingesting cocaine.
How can you screw up something so basic like Cocaine Bear? That was the question I asked myself while sitting through Elizabeth Banks’ insanely promising, yet terribly unfunny movie that lacked both fun and cathartic slapstick humor and massive amounts of gore. The film is based on the true story of a Black Bear who shortly died after ingesting a duffel bag full of cocaine in 1985. However, it revises the part where the bear died and instead goes on a killing spree while looking for more cocaine to snort. Doesn’t that sound incredible? Doesn’t that sound like the return of cinema? Music to my ears! Finally, this could be Hollywood’s answer to Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, and yet…
There are some sequences that do work in this movie, and spoiling them would rob you of the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. All of them involve Margo Martindale’s Ranger Liz, who oversees the national park in which the Bear is located. Martindale’s comedic timing is perfect, teetering the line between absurdly self-aware and just frightened enough that when the Bear charges, you believe in her willingness to protect visitors at all costs. She’s the best part of the film (she has every funny line and best action setpieces to herself), alongside Alden Ehrenreich whose delivery of “The bear! It f—ing did cocaine!” is exactly why he was cast in the role in the first place.
Ehrenreich has decent enough chemistry with O’Shea Jackson Jr. who plays his drug dealing partner, but Jackson can’t match the same level of comedic skills that Ehrenreich, Martindale, or even Isiah Whitlock Jr. (who plays a police detective whose deadpan line deliveries are legendary) bring to the table. It’s unfortunate that every other actor in this incredible ensemble are nowhere near as good as the ones mentioned above. Even the late Ray Liotta, in one of his final film roles, looks completely bored playing Syd, the drug dealer on top of the operation to retrieve the cocaine-filled duffel bags. He’s barely in the film, and when he’s in it, his performance is a total sleepwalk. What a shame, since this will be one of the last times audiences will see Liotta on screen.
And while there are many cathartic sequences in Cocaine Bear, most of its insanity lacks a severe amount of gore. The CGI Bear doesn’t look convincing, nor scary. It makes a weird guttural sound every time he’s close to cocaine, which doesn’t make it feel like a menacing creature, and the same can be said for how the film edits the bear’s drug trips. At one point, a character mentions “it’s Christmas with cocaine,” and Christmas bells are heard to signal that, hey, this is snow for the bear! Boring.
The action is also quite haphazardly shot. There’s an incredible ambulance chase that happens almost halfway through the movie, but it’s the only sequence where the bear feels like a menacing threat to the characters. It’s also the only time in which Banks and cinematographer John Guleserian craft something visually exciting and push the gore to the extreme. One shot of a hand barely hanging on a character’s arm is powerful enough to provoke a strong reaction. The film’s climax is so poorly shot and set in the laziest setting possible (a dark cave!) that all momentum it tries to create is lost in a sea of murky cinematography, poorly conceived CGI, and shoddily written dialogue.
As such, the insanity that is Cocaine Bear is only reserved for its trailer, which promises an insane ride at the movies, only for the movie to be a total whimper. It never doubles down on its premise enough to make it feel like a blast. Aside from a few great performances and select fun action scenes, most of Cocaine Bear’s impact falls flat. This could’ve been the movie to save all self-referential movies. However, it’s the single biggest disappointment of a film made in the 2020’s so far. That’s not good.