Sunday, May 26, 2024

No Country for an Old ‘Cocaine Bear’

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Cocaine Bear is based on a true story inspired by actual events, based on things that have happened; the filmmakers cross their hearts and hope to die. So, of course, there is a germ of truth, but the rest is pure malarkey. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Elizabeth Banks’ latest movie is a helluva good time. Jimmy Warden’s script is a slasher movie wrapped around a lost/found item story with an odd rhythm that, while offputting at first, grew on me as the movie progressed. Banks and Warden do a lot of setup for a coked-up Black Bear on a rampage. But that’s because part of the film’s charm is how we have all these disparate characters converging onto this one spot and facing the drugged-out Mamma bear.

cocaine bear
Keri Russell and the Bear Who Did Coke

Oh, yes, the cocaine bear in Cocaine Bear is a woman. 

Banks wisely has gathered a top-notch cast, including the national treasure Margo Martindale as Ranger Liz, a horny park ranger. What’s more, Liz is more concerned with getting Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) alone than she is with finding Sari’s (Keri Russell) runaway daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery). And yes, you read that correctly; Cocaine Bear has both Margo Martindale AND Keri Russell. 

Having those two alone would make Cocaine Bear a rager. But add in the trio of drug smugglers on the search for their lost cocaine in the mountains, played by Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Ray Liotta, and it’s officially a party. Ehrenreich’s Eddie is grieving over his wife’s death, Liotta is Eddie’s father and drug kingpin Syd, and Jackson is a working stiff just trying to pull his friend Eddie out of the depression funk; he’s in a while, not helping Syd find his missing coke.

 Spoiler alert: The bear has it.

Banks and Warden sometimes feel as if they have overextended themselves. We also have the narcotics detective hot on Syd’s tail, played by Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and his newly adopted dog. Add to the mix a trio of juvenile delinquents, the Duchamps Gang led by Stache (Aaron Holliday), causing trouble for Ranger Liz and Daveed, and you start to see how Banks and Warden have spread themselves a little thin.

To make matters worse, Banks struggles to achieve an overall tone for Cocaine Bear. As a result, there’s a feeling of aimlessness that creeps up into the scenes. Yet, despite these problems, Banks seems to be growing as a director. Her camera moves and placements are becoming more confident.

John Guleserian doesn’t shy away from the gore. Banks and Guleserian go full tilt in the comedic violence. I couldn’t help but think that the characters were all Wile E. Coyote and the bear was the Roadrunner. One scene has Ranger Liz accidentally shooting someone in the head, and I almost choked on my drink. 

Cocaine Bear is a good old-fashioned B-Movie where everyone involved understands why they are here. This movie is about a bear who does cocaine, kills people, and does more cocaine. Had I had a whiskey or a Guinness beforehand, I might have enjoyed the film a little more. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I’m just saying some movies go over a bit better with help, like Baywatch or Cocaine Bear.

I’ll give Cocaine Bear points for having an odd heart in the middle of its gross-out wacky splatter-a-thon. But, for all the maulings and people being impaled and limbs ripped off, there is a sweetness to the film. It’s there in the way Detective Bob slowly grows to love his dog. Or how Eherenreich’s Eddie gently realizes that Daveed is more than a co-worker and that life may be worth living despite his wife being gone. 

cocaine bear
Stache (Aaron Holliday) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) discuss how to get Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) out from under the bear

Warden parallels Sari and Deedee’s relationship with Eddie and his son, whom he’s left with his drug dealer father, along with the bear’s issues with its cubs. Yeah, I gotta say I didn’t expect Cocaine Bear to be as much about family as it is. 

Though it almost all comes apart in the end, neither Banks nor Guleserian seems to understand how to light a night scene. Cocaine Bear shows us that, once more, Hollywood trembles before the almighty night scene and continues to make it almost impossible to see anything. The CGI bear is good. Considering most of the bear’s scenes are in broad daylight, it is an impressive accomplishment. Yet, figuring out how to light a night scene remains beyond the modern filmmaker.

That aside, Cocaine Bear is everything it needs to be and a little more. It’s part of a long, proud tradition of killer bear movies. Granted, Prophecy, Grizzly, Grizzly IIInto the Grizzly Maze, Grizzly Man, and Brother Bear tend to deal with Grizzlies and brown bears. Cocaine Bear deals with a black bear, and this can not be overstated; a black bear coked out of its mind for the entire runtime.

Cocaine Bear isn’t as great as Grizzly Man. But it is better than Grizzly II or Brother Bear and is as good, if not a few shades better, than Into the Grizzly Maze. Though it’s not as solid as Grizzly, it does have a black bear doing a line of coke off a dismembered leg. So, it’s safe to say it might be a draw.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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