Elizabeth Banks directs, Jimmy Warden writes, everyone runs for their lives.
In the mid-1980s, a Ronald Reagan was beginning his second term in the White House, the so-called “War on Drugs,” a favorite of reactionaries in both parties, was on the rise, leading to massive increases in funding for law enforcement, harsh and unjust sentences for low-level, drug-related crimes, and mass incarceration we have yet to resolve. But Reagan’s America believed (and specifically in First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign) everything was indeed copacetic, and illegal drugs would soon decrease to tolerable, if not negligible, levels.
Little has changed since then, but in director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2)’s latest film, Cocaine Bear, drugs are the subject of grisly, gnarly, gory fun. The title character, a fearsomely realized CGI mama bear, finds a duffel bag stuffed with cocaine bricks and promptly begins a bender-rampage that will, in time, become the stuff of cinematic legend. Once hooked, the unnamed bear just can’t get enough cocaine in her system. Weighing in at a hefty 500 pounds, the bear needs as much cocaine as she can find to keep that newly-found high going, regardless of who or what inadvertently gets in her way.
The movie is loosely (operative word being “loosely”) based on a real-life event that unfolded on September 11th, 1985, involving a narcotics officer turned drug smuggler, an overloaded airplane falling from the sky, and a desperate attempt to unburden the plane of its illegal cargo. Cocaine Bear takes that collection of facts and builds an old-school eco-horror flick, throwing all manner of innocent (and not-so-innocent) civilians in the bear’s rampaging paths. Some survive, most don’t, but even those that do don’t emerge unscathed from their encounter with the drug-fueled bear and her never-ending search for the next cocaine-filled duffel bag.
Those unfortunate characters include, but are not limited to, Sari (Keri Russell), a single mom and nurse scouring a nearby National Forest for her truant daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and Dee Dee’s best friend and fellow partner in juvenile crime, Henry (Christian Convery); borderline inept, low-level associates Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who work for a mid-level drug dealer, Syd (the late Ray Liotta), who is desperate to recover the missing cocaine before his Colombian suppliers demand payment; Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a slightly dog-obsessed police detective from a nearby jurisdiction hoping to burnish his rep with a major drug bust; a romantically-inclined park ranger, Liz (Margo Martindale), and her current object of affection, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
Before the credits even roll, a lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-reel-life Scandinavian couple, Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra), find themselves face-to-snout with the coke-fueled bear. It goes about as badly as you’d expect, setting the absurdist, blood- and limb-spattered stage for everything that follows. In general, characters pair up in twos and threes, with Sari joining an unhappy Liz and a clueless Peter, while Daveed and Eddie, the latter still mourning his late wife, find themselves escorting a potentially duplicitous stoner to one of the duffel bags. Bob wanders in too, pushing the plot in both expected and not-so-expected directions, though the real star of the film and principal chaos agent isn’t human at all. It’s the bear.
Giddily leaning in eco-horror/disaster tropes, Cocaine Bear fully embraces the reality-bending absurdity of its premise, throwing in creative kills, darker-than-dark humor, and a full-on CGI bear that mostly convinces as an apex predator reluctant to share the spoils of its drugs. Only once or twice does the CGI bear disappoint, likely the result of a tight budget and an even tighter turnaround time, but it’s a minor, ultimately forgivable issue, especially with everything else surrounding it: pitch-perfect, borderline camp performances and tight, taut direction by Banks that never wastes a moment and never fails to exploit the premise to its fullest, most ridiculous potential.
And remember kids, “Just Say No …” to simplistic, reductive catch phrases.
Cocaine Bear opens theatrically in North America on Friday, February 24th.