Cocaine Bear: Killer title, but the movie kinda blows

Cocaine Bear: Killer title, but the movie kinda blows

Cocaine Bear. A title with an implicit promise. There will be a bear. There will be cocaine. The rest are details.

The past few months I’ve covered shrinking superheroes, the best in Canadian film and television, killer robots dolls and male strippers. Doesn’t matter. No other film even comes close to the off-the-chart awareness and giddy anticipation around Cocaine Bear.

Does the bear roar? Does it live up to the hype? Does it fulfil the potent promise of that amazing title? Technically yes, but there’s a wide chasm between what the audience wants Cocaine Bear to be, and what it delivers.

First a few surprising facts. Yes, the bear is based on a true story. In 1985, there was a drug runner who died after dropping packages of cocaine out of a plane. He plummeted to his death. The drugs landed in the woods and a few days later a black bear was found dead after overdosing on about 34 kilograms (!) of the white stuff.

The backstory of the bear movie itself begins with screenwriter Jimmy Warden who had the idea to flesh out the story and the brilliance to title it Cocaine Bear. Warden shared it with executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who he’d worked with. Eventually it found its way to Elizabeth Banks.

Director Elizabeth Banks sits in an ambulance between takes.
Director Elizabeth Banks knew the Cocaine Bear would be her next project the moment she read the script. (Universal Studios)

There’s the other surprise. Known for her roles in 30 Rock, the Hunger Games series and Pitch Perfect, Banks has been focusing more on producing and directing. She stepped behind the camera for the 2019 Charlie’s Angels remake and Pitch Perfect 2. Back in April of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Banks discovered the script and knew she had her next project.

The film opens with an appetizer of sorts, as a couple of Nordic hikers take in the scenic views of Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. Then into the viewfinder of Christopher’s camera lurches to a big black bear acting strangely.

In the beginning, Banks ramps up the suspense, borrowing a page from Jaws. There’s much rustling of bushes, snorting in the distance. It’s more about the idea of a drug-fuelled bear than the actuality. Soon the hikers get a little closer to nature then they intended, and it’s onto the main course.

Two detectives, one in plain clothes and the other in uniform, appear in a still from Cocaine Bear.
The dependable Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays Bob, a detective hot on the trail of some drug runners, with Ayoola Smart as Officer Reba. (Universal Studios)

Cocaine Bear features a broad cast of characters. There’s Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery as Dee Dee and Henry, a couple of kids skipping school to go paint in the woods. Keri Russell appears as Sari, Dee Dee’s mom in the fetching pink jumpsuit who is determined to get them back.

Since you can’t have carnage without a criminal element, the late Ray Liotta plays the drug kingpin Syd who sends his minions to recover the precious powder. Hot on their case is the reliable Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Bob the detective who has a hunch he’ll find the bad guys in snooping around the park.

bear rubs his back on the ground
After 34 kilos of cocaine, the computer-generated black bear does some forest bathing. (Universal Studios)

Of course what’s snooping and snorting is a very big 175-pound black bear (created entirely with computer-generated imagery) who shoved his snout in the pounds of coke. Once he has a taste for the stuff, well, let’s just say he’s not much for sharing.

Cocaine Bear is rated 18A for good reason. When the fur starts flying there are severed limbs aplenty, claw marks and  more than enough of the red stuff. One particularly inspired scene begins when some unsuspecting paramedics respond to a concussion call.

What they find in the park ranger’s offices quickly escalates with the medics and a wounded ranger jumping in the ambulance to flee. Powered by powder, Yoggi the buzzy Bear gallops after them in hot pursuit. Margo Martindale as Ranger Liz tries to hold him off with her pistol but evidently this bear is a fan of Fast & Furious as he executes a mid-chase leap that would do Vin Diesel proud.

a bear attempts to jump into an ambulance and is captured mid leap
You’ll believe a bear can fly. (Universal Studios)

Ridiculous and riotous, it’s those kind of moments Cocaine Bear needed more of. Instead, the movie’s momentum lopes along, dragged down by distracting storylines.

Banks is a comedy director first, so she puts the characters front and centre, devoting time to developing their various personalities and predicaments. The kids are worried about getting addicted. The park ranger is sweet on an animal lover played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

There’s even Alden Ehrenreich, as Eddie the drug kingpin’s son. You may remember him as Han from Solo, the ill-fated Star Wars prequel. As Eddie, he’s distracted and still grieving his dead wife, while Daveed, his business-minded associate, just wants to get the job done and go home.

Now I enjoy Ehrenreich as a character actor and he makes Eddie work. But we didn’t come to see Sad Boy Drug Dealer Daddy Issues the movie. We came for Cocaine Bear. More snarl. Less sentiment.

WATCH | The official trailer for Cocaine Bear:

Like Fargo in the forest, Cocaine Bear is reaching for Coen Brothers territory but the script falls short.

Perhaps actor-turned-director Banks is too attached to her characters, but the film with the killer title deserved a grizzlier approach. A little more Sharknado energy perhaps, or the great gory gusto of Dartmouth director Jason Eisener. Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is another great example of a film that eviscerates and entertains.

The good news is there’s ample time to perfect the formula. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden says he’s already exploring the possibility of a sequel. Cocaine Bears? Cocaine Critters? A whole forest filled with pharmaceutically fuelled animals? Get the right title and we’ll be back for more.