Cocaine Bear is an action thriller with frequent hits of highly addictive comedy-horror that utilises its ‘80s backdrop and soundtrack to create a brilliantly hedonistic retro bloodfest.
Starring: Keri Russell, Ray Liotta, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Aaron Holliday, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery
After weeks of telling everyone I know about the Cocaine Bear trailer being the best thing I’d seen at the cinema this month and going into this with pretty high expectations, I can happily say that I barely remember the trailer for Creed III because oh my 230 kg black bear pumped full of cocaine on a killing spree, this was 95 minutes of comedy, chaos, and claws.
The barebones premise of Cocaine Bear is based on the true story of a 1985 American black bear that ingested a duffel bag filled with 40 containers of cocaine after a botched drug drop from a plane in Georgia and, despite already being the least disappointing story behind a ‘based on’ premise, is transformed into a brilliantly paced ‘80s action-thriller injected with comedy, horror, and adventure by director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden.
Banks brings immediate depth to the characters that inhabit this world, who are all essentially melodramatic trash caricatures that work in perfect harmony with the rhythm and tone of the film, and Warden has refined the snappy, memorable dialogue from 2017’s The Babysitter to balance individuality and characterisation across a pretty meaty ensemble cast of character and storylines.
Sari (Keri Russell) is a hard-working nurse and single mother, with a charmingly rebellious 13-year-old daughter (Brooklynn Prince) who skips school one day with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to go into the nearby forest and paint a waterfall, but instead discovers a brick of cocaine, which the two promptly ingest an excessive amount of before being attacked by a cocaine-fuelled black bear that doesn’t like sharing.
Meanwhile, Miami Vice drug dealer Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta) meets with Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and tells him to drive out to the forest with Dentwood’s son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to both recover the missing cocaine that Syd is responsible for and to soothe Eddie’s broken heart over the loss of his wife and an unfortunately misspelled commemorative tattoo.
Daveed reluctantly agrees despite ruining his brand new Nike’s with Foreshadowing Ketchup, and the pair drive toward the forest drop point where they encounter Stache (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J.B. Moore), and Ponytail (Leo Hanna), a trio of strung-out amateur thieves carrying a brick of coke who first try to rob and stab Daveed, before he quickly plays Tetris with their bodies in a bathroom stall.
Being the only one left conscious, Stache reluctantly agrees to take the pair to the remaining hidden stash of cocaine, which leads the ragtag group of conflicting emotional states and perspectives on a hike where Daveed again ruins his Nike’s in a Foreshadowing River, unaware they are being pursued by Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who is illegally investing the area as an excuse to get rid of, then fall in love with, his recently adopted dog.
Chopped into this mix is Matthew Rhys as cocaine-smuggler-and-based-on-visionary Andrew C. Thornton II, Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra as overly curious and comedically blunt European hikers, Margo Martindale as a park ranger one bottle of expensive perfume away from reenacting Misery with park inspector Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ayoola Smart as Bob’s fellow officer and impromptu dog sitter Office Reba, and Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss as the unluckiest paramedics in the world.
And then there’s the big boy, our coke-fuelled black bear of saliva and teeth and claws, a gargantuan beast that carries ferocious weight and presence in every frame it tears its way into, made terrifyingly perfect by the balanced mix of performance capture by actor Allan Henry and post-production effects by Weta Digital. Fuelled only by the desire for increasing quantities of cocaine, the gore flows freely, roars shake your bones, and limbs are torn like paper, all with a delightfully unflinching and brutal execution.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a retro theme, but Cocaine Bear feels authentic in its use without ever being overly obvious or tacky, sprinkling in a soundtrack of nostalgia amongst the visceral sound effects and score to keep the film aesthetically and thematically tight, even during a highly contrived final 10 or so minutes of the film that could have undone much of its previous brilliance.
But I came here for Cocaine Bear and a raging, physics-defying murder beast, expecting a trash-horror-comedy that would dial into and delight in its absurdity and provide tension and implication over face-tearing gore, instead being hit with a film that also has authentic heart, wholesome adventure, dry-absurdist comedy, and an outstanding ensemble genre cast – enough to warrant a line for Cocaine Bear that stretches around the block.