THE STORY – After a 500-pound black bear consumes a significant amount of cocaine and embarks on a drug-fueled rampage, an eccentric gathering of cops, criminals, tourists, and teenagers assemble in a Georgia forest.
THE CAST – Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale & Ray Liotta
THE TEAM – Elizabeth Banks (Director) & Jimmy Warden (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
Sometimes, one doesn’t need much information to surmise what is behind a particular film’s intentionality. The pedigree of the talent involved could signal an intriguing aura of prestige. The subject matter may indicate an interesting landscape that can explore nuanced thematic depths. Tales ripped from the headlines indulge in a curious fascination with an undercurrent of darkness that maligns everyday life. Occasionally, however, all one really needs is an enticing title to completely capture the senses and immediately communicate the exact tenor of storytelling that will be exposed. Suffice it to say, “Cocaine Bear” is a name that crafts a specific atmosphere that is difficult not to assume will be the final result. This film indeed exists in such a register, and it can be enjoyable if a tad hollow.
Loosely inspired by true events, the film’s namesake comes from an incident in the 1980s in which a drug smuggler had dropped a large portion of his plane cargo into the Tennessee wilderness. In doing so, the illicit material was found by a bear who ended up ingesting the substance. In real life, this amounted to little more than a wild animal that died not too long after eating large portions of the drug. However, this fictionalized account imagines a raging monster on a rampage of destruction, devouring any person that stands in the way of its quest for more cocaine. Those attempting to evade such wrath are a mother (Kerri Russell) looking for a group of lost children, a park ranger (Margo Martindale) attempting to maintain the peace, and a gaggle of criminal associates trying to recover the valuable property. It’s all a race to survive this deadly force of nature.
As one would expect, this effort is meant to go for something other than dramatic heights and complex emotions. Elizabeth Banks brings a jovial energy to this piece, which luxuriates in the schlocky violence of a high concept. Overall, she creates a thoroughly entertaining environment, despite a persistent yearning for an even stronger commitment to the inherent silliness. There is a self-awareness that would have been more appreciated had the aesthetics pushed further for a grungy depiction of a blood-drenched 80s escapade. As is, the style feels more muted, as does Jimmy Warden’s screenplay, which falls victim to the usual circumstances of the spectacle being far more captivating than any of the human elements. It oddly feels that the titular character is not very predominant, particularly straining in an elongated third act that becomes tedious. Still, the set pieces are wholly enthralling when they do appear, and it’s easy to be won over by the endearing spirit. It’s unfortunate that a scattered narrative overstuffed with too many characters is a constant deterrent from enjoying the whole piece more intensely.
In most cases, it is true that the performances would not be the most noteworthy element due to the severe lack of a rich foundation for the actors. However, it is a great credit to this ensemble that they make the most out of what is given and actually make an indelible impact. Russell is a bit generic in her presence, but Martindale is a joyous delight in her curmudgeonly persona. There is also a nice turn from Alden Ehrenreich as a member of the posse hunting down the cocaine, who delivers an effective humorous portrayal. The ensemble is filled with great performers from the likes of Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the late Ray Liotta, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Though a particular highlight comes from the banter between Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery, the missing children whose bickering feels like an authentic representation and provides some of the best comedic moments without ever being overtly grating. The cast is well-assembled, with each individual compensating nicely for hollow aspects.
Although the overall amusement one can find throughout “Cocaine Bear,” there is a small lament to be shared for the missed potential that could have showcased an even greater achievement. The film doesn’t seem quite as exuberant in its irreverent nature as it could be, getting distracted by a plethora of characters that drag the pacing, often with stale humor and a finale that runs out of steam. At the same time, it’s difficult to deny the pleasure associated with this exhibition, particularly its commitment to this absurd premise. It does so with amusement, and a capable group of actors shines along the way. It’s easy to say that one can set a certain level of expectation for a film with such a title. It falls short in some areas but meets enough to appreciate the ride.