A bear high on cocaine is one hell of a premise for a film. Elizabeth Banks’ third film as a director is loosely based on the true story of an American black bear ingesting over 30 kilograms of cocaine, which was dropped off a plane.
While the real bear died, Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden were clearly inspired by the incident and created an elaborate set of characters around a bear high on cocaine. The finished film is equal amounts a comedy, a horror and an action film and a very effective one too.
The film shows just how the bear came to ingest the cocaine. A drug smuggler tosses bags of cocaine out of a plane before meeting his maker, and the poor bear just happens to come across the coke, eagerly eating some.
And as we remember from all those cheesy anti-drug videos we’ve all sat through in school, it only takes one bump to get addicted. And this bear is craving more cocaine, and nothing will stop it from getting it.
Various humans come across the bear on its drug-fuelled rampage. These include two kids (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), a mother (Keri Russell), a drug kingpin (Ray Liotta) and his son and associate (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.), as well as a local police officer (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who, quite frankly, just wants to go home with his dog.
As you’d expect from such a title, Cocaine Bear is gloriously outrageous. It’s entertaining, wild and bold. People are getting ripped to shreds, kids are doing cocaine and all the mayhem you could ever want.
The bear is well realised with impressive CGI by WETA, the company behind some of the best CGI creations in recent cinematic history, like Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes films. Strangely, the bear looks great in almost every scene, but there are a few bits where the CGI looks a bit dodgy, like when a character falls from a tree.
Cocaine Bear is also wonderfully gory. Banks has really gone all out with the gore effects, and there is a generous amount of bloodletting, which is exactly what we want. Let’s be honest; no one buys a ticket to Cocaine Bear expecting a character-driven drama.
That being said, the roster of characters is intriguing, and all are brought to life vividly by the talented cast. The film’s casting could have ruined it, but the cast of Cocaine Bear somewhat elevates the silliness.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich get to play with a buddy-comedy dynamic, while Keri Russell is left mostly looking scared the entire time. Margo Martindale gets perhaps the best lines and lights up the screen with her comedic timing. But it’s Isiah Whitlock Jr. who escapes with the film’s biggest laughs.
Where the script slightly falters is the dialogue. It’s all a bit too obvious and on the nose, but again, the wonderful cast gets away with it. It’s also easy to forgive the somewhat obvious character arcs when the film delivers on so many other levels.
Banks and Warden are clearly in on all the jokes of Cocaine Bear; the film begins with a Wikipedia quote after all. This self-awareness proves to be a great asset for the film, and it never forgets what it is.
Cocaine Bear occasionally touches upon bigger themes, like the nature of humanity and our relationship with nature, but wisely, it never dwells on them for too long. Cocaine Bear is meant to be a fun, crazy, relentless thrill ride, not a deep rumination of humanity. Banks wisely keeps the gore coming, and there’s even a decent amount of sympathy for the bear. Banks has previously spoken that she felt great sadness for the real bear and wanted to, in a way, avenge its death.
Above all, Cocaine Bear is hilarious. The jokes come frequently, and nearly every single one lands. Banks proves herself to be a savvy, competent director; getting a film like Cocaine Bear off the ground is an impressive feat, but making it such a riot is a true testament to her capabilities as a director.
Cocaine Bear is in cinemas on 24 February.