An apex predator goes on a coke-fueled killing spree in Cocaine Bear, an offbeat horror-comedy that opens in Prague cinemas and worldwide this weekend. While the film does deliver numerous scenes of a bear ingesting cocaine and mauling people to death, there’s so little else on display here that it makes it hard to recommend.
Cocaine Bear is based on the legendary true story of drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (briefly played by Matthew Rhys), who died after leaping from his plane with 35 kilos of coke strapped to his body, landing in a Knoxville driveway after his parachute malfunctioned. Before he got there, he dumped 40 containers full of cocaine in the forests of Georgia, one of which was stumbled upon by a black bear.
But that’s where the similarities end. The real black bear died within minutes after ingesting 34 kilos of cocaine itself, was found by authorities weeks later, stuffed, and turned into a tourist attraction. But in Cocaine Bear, the creature develops a dangerous addiction to blow, searching the forest for more coke and eviscerating anyone who gets in its way.
That includes a ragtag assortment of characters who find themselves in the mountains of Georgia: a pair of foreign hikers (Hannah Hoekstra and Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and wildlife expert (Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a pair of kids (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) playing hooky from school, and the concerned mother (Keri Russell) on their trail.
Then there’s the mob boss (Ray Liotta, who passed away shortly after filming) who sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich) and an accomplice (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) out to retrieve the packages of cocaine dumped in the forest, and the Knoxville detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and deputy (Ayoola Smart) on their trail.
Most of these characters, and a handful of others, serve as animal fodder during Cocaine Bear, and there’s a good 20 minutes of satisfyingly grisly animal action, highlighted by an attack at the ranger station that culminates with the bear chasing down an ambulance. While the fully-animated bear is initially no more convincing than Sonic the Hedgehog, the effects get better as the film goes on.
But the remaining hour-plus of Cocaine Bear is devoid of character or plot development, or most other basic requirements of a major motion picture. An improbable amount of this movie is characters milling around in the woods a la a Don Dohler flick, and feels largely improvised; a major narrative thread, no joke, involves a running game of twenty questions.
Written by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), Cocaine Bear seems to have been conceived as a kind of quirky indie based on an improbable true story in the vein of 30 Minutes or Less. But director Elizabeth Banks and her cast play it big and broad, resulting in an uncomfortable tone that undercuts the gory violence. Mark Mothersbaugh’s zippy synth score and a variety of upbeat 80s pop tunes don’t help.
There’s an unintentional sense of nihilism at play here as a 12-year-old makes wisecracks as he comes across dead bodies, and even some icky real-life correlations. “In Loving Memory of Ray Liotta” reads the end scrawl of Cocaine Bear, just moments after his character has his stomach sliced open, guts pulled out and munched on in a sequence intended to be comical.
A movie like Cocaine Bear probably shouldn’t take itself seriously, but a little gravitas when it comes to the bloodshed would have gone a long way; instead, the film’s flippant tone is a turnoff. The best horror-comedies, like Evil Dead 2 or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, know that onscreen violence needs to be treated with a little respect, even when going for laughs.
Like Snakes on a Plane, however, audiences that intentionally walk into Cocaine Bear can’t say the film doesn’t deliver on its titular promise. There might not be much else going on here, but there’s a bear on cocaine tearing people to shreds, and that’s probably enough.