Stars: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Ray Liotta, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Kristofer Hivju, Ayoola Smart, Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna, Kahyun Kim, Scott Seiss, Matthew Rhys, Allan Henry
Writer: Jimmy Warden
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: February 24, 2023
It’s easy enough to believe COCAINE BEAR’s advertising claim that it is “based on true events.” After all, with all the cocaine smuggling going on, there is no reason not to believe that some got dropped in a forest and eaten by a bear. The rest of the movie feels not entirely but sort of like what we might see if the Coen Brothers decided that what one of their dark comedies about luckless low-life criminals needed was extra gore and a very high, very violent bruin.
The incident that COCAINE BEAR is based on happened in the year when the film is set, in 1985. The bear in real life was found dead of an overdose after ingesting drugs that got dumped in the woods.
In COCAINE BEAR, the title character is alive and well, just exceedingly jacked up after having eaten several bricks of coke. The bear is consequently speedy, belligerent, and continually hungry for both food and more blow.
We’re still in 1985, but the main setting of COCAINE BEAR is a wildlife preserve in Chattahoochee, Georgia. Thirteen-year-old Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) convinces her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to go up to the waterfall with her, largely to annoy her mom, nurse Sari (Keri Russell). It doesn’t take Sari long to go in search of her errant daughter.
This brings Sari into the orbit of wildlife lover Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and grouchy park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale). Add in the drug dealers (Ray Liotta and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) trying to recover their product, the top dealer’s unhappy son (Alden Ehrenreich), some tourists, assorted miscreants, law enforcement, and paramedics, none of whom have a clear picture of what’s going on, and there’s plenty of possibility for mayhem even without the bear.
Because it wouldn’t be wise or humane or safe (or likely even possible) to get a real bear to do what’s required here, the animal is played by a combination of a motion-capture performance by impressively athletic Allan Henry and a huge VFX team, headed up by WETA FX. While the fur is extraordinary and we believe the impact of the bear’s body, there’s still a bit of an uncanny valley issue with the eyes.
For once, this actually works to a movie’s benefit. Because the bear looks ever-so-slightly artificial, it accentuates the cartoon aspect of the action, letting the audience more easily laugh at some visceral visual gags.
The script by Jimmy Warden has the texture of a good yarn, and director Elizabeth Banks shows a gift for black comedy horror staging. The audience at the press screening laughed and groaned in all the right places.
The filmmakers provide the blessing of story logic. We never ask why people don’t just leave, because not only are most of them compelled by their various quests – seeking lost people and/or coke – but events are so compressed that they don’t have time to flee.
COCAINE BEAR mostly has fun with the ‘80s era, though there are a couple of missteps – yeah, some unfortunates did have Peter’s haircut in 1985, but it’s just distracting in this context. Mostly, though, the period touches are spot-on.
Banks has also assembled a great cast, including erstwhile THE AMERICANS costars Russell and Martindale. Russell is primarily required to be alarmed but determined, which she enacts admirably. Martindale shows she can do big comedy as dexterously as she does subtle drama. (A third AMERICANS star, Matthew Rhys, is onscreen briefly but hilariously as the pilot whose errors set things in motion.)
Other standouts in the cast are Jackson as the most reasonable person in sight, Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a dogged detective, and the late Liotta as a man who is on the whole scarier than the bear. If there’s a message here, as demonstrated rather than spoken, it’s that human greed and stupidity remain a lot more dangerous than anything nature has to offer.
COCAINE BEAR is for viewers who enjoy drollery and gore combined with good timing – and, of course, with a bear.
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