By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Written by Jimmy Warden
An oft-cited quote from esteemed filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard goes, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” Rarely has that principle been put into practice as quickly as this month, with COCAINE BEAR opening this week to prove itself the kind of dumb-fun gorefest with a rampageous bear that WINNIE-THE-POOH: BLOOD AND HONEY pretended to be and completely failed at last week. Of course, the new film was done on a significantly higher budget, and comes with the imprimatur of producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the nimble satirists/homagists behind THE LEGO MOVIE, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, etc. Yet the most telling names in COCAINE BEAR’s credits are those of another of the producers, Brian Duffield, and scripter Jimmy Warden, both of whom did writing/producing work on Netflix’s THE BABYSITTER flicks.
COCAINE BEAR similarly serves up steaming portions of over-the-top grue with a don’t-take-any-of-this-seriously attitude, rather more successfully than the BABYSITTERs. Part of the fun lies simply in the fact that this grisly goof is arriving under the aegis of a major studio, Universal, which was even able to garnish it with an “Inspired By True Events” tagline. Not that anyone will mistake this for a docudrama, with an end credit helpfully noting that “Some material has been fictionalized.” The facts retained are limited: In 1985, drug trafficker Andrew C. Thornton II dropped a number of containers of Columbian marching powder from a small plane that he was then forced to abandon, though his parachute failed and he fatally face-planted onto a residential driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Meanwhile, a black bear in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest came across the dropped cocaine, consumed about 75 pounds of it and died what was likely a horrible and painful death.
The screen version of this story opens with Thornton (played by Matthew Rhys, real-life husband of the film’s lead Keri Russell and her co-star on TV’s THE AMERICANS) more foolishly meeting his high-impact fate, then skips over the bear discovering and ingesting the drugs to find it already crazed and attacking a couple of hikers. Opening titles that poke fun at Wikipedia (getting the movie off on the right foot) establish that the best way to deal with a black bear attack is to fight back, but the rest of the film’s characters are fated to find that won’t help when the beast is whacked out of its mind.
These folks include Sari (Russell), a nurse whose day becomes complicated when her 13-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Dee Dee’s friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school to hike to Chattahoochee’s Blood Mountain (yes, that really exists); Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a trusted enforcer for local drug lord Syd (Ray Liotta), whom the latter tasks with tracking down the fallen snow with Syd’s sensitive son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich); park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale, stealing the movie with her piss-and-vinegar attitude) and wildlife preservationist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), on whom she’s got a crush; local detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and fellow cop Reba (Ayoola Smart); and a trio of teenage thugs (Aaron Holiday, J.B. Moore and Leo Hanna) who have been waylaying hikers and, in one of the best early scenes, make the mistake of trying to hold up Daveed.
With the exception of Sari, whose quest to track down the missing Dee Dee establishes her as a determined mama bear (though the movie is wise enough to avoid pushing the metaphor), none of these people are terribly bright, and don’t elicit too much sympathy, which is likely part of the filmmakers’ design. If we truly felt for them, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the extreme splatstick that ensues when they come face-to-snout with the coke-crazed bear. They do have a number of funny moments in between attacks, though, and Banks directs the whole thing vigorously, even throwing in some appreciated flourishes. (I enjoyed, for example, the way she motivates a heartbeat sound effect used to build tension in one sequence.) There’s also more variety to the attack situations than one usually finds in animal-amok pictures, and the highlight is one demonstrating that a speeding vehicle is no match for a drug-addled bruin.
Those coming for the bear’s bloodshed (likely a large percentage of the audience) will dig the fact that quite a bit of it was done practically, by Liz Byrne (GRETEL & HANSEL) and the Weta Workshop team. The furry killer herself (yep, it’s a she, which pays off at the climax) was unsurprisingly realized via CGI, but it’s good enough that you can suspend a bit of disbelief and view it as the real thing. And after all, suspending disbelief is what a movie like COCAINE BEAR is all about. You’re not here to see a serious work of genre cinema; you’re here to see if the movie lives up to the bluntest title promising the most ridiculous premise since SNAKES ON A PLANE (a film I can happily report this one surpasses). Is COCAINE BEAR a movie you’ll be thinking about a couple of days after you see it? Not likely. Is it a movie that delivers plenty of low-rent entertainment, particularly if seen with an enthusiastic audience? Does a bear poop in the woods (about the only thing Cocaine Bear doesn’t do)?