Review: The enjoyably grisly ‘Cocaine Bear’ is nothing to sniff at
In September 1985, Tennessee authorities discovered the body of Andrew Carter Thornton II, a former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler who had fallen to his death from a plane. The bags full of cocaine he was transporting into the country took longer to recover. By the time the illicit cargo was found in Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, much of it had already been ingested by an unfortunate 175-pound black bear, found dead nearby of a massive overdose. From this real-life tale of greed, stupidity and humanity’s unthinking abuse of nature rises a natural question: What if the bear, rather than simply kilo-ing over, had gone on a murderous coke-fueled rampage driven by a hunger for not just sinewy human flesh (though there’s plenty of that), but for another whiff of that sweet, sweet powder?
Nasty, brutish and snort-filled, “Cocaine Bear” provides an extremely gory and amusingly speculative answer. Having grabbed headlines with its viral trailer, cheerfully self-explanatory title and sly redefinition of “high concept,” the movie has already invited obvious pre-release comparisons to “Snakes on a Plane,” the (sadly underseen) 2006 thriller that soared for months as an internet sensation before crashing to box-office earth. Whether or not audiences form lines for “Cocaine Bear,” it’s hard to completely dismiss a mainstream horror-comedy that offers a nice supply of sharp and grisly, at least until it takes a disappointing turn for soft and cuddly. You’ve seen worse new movies in February, maybe even this February.
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What you probably haven’t seen is a 500-pound bear (because everything is bigger in Hollywood) mauling her way through a once-idyllic stretch of federally protected woodland. (Most of this largely Georgia-set movie was shot in rural Ireland.) In keeping with most of today’s apex-predator-run-amok entertainments, including last year’s solidly entertaining “Beast,” this fictional version of “Pablo Escobear” (a locally coined nickname) is entirely and convincingly computer-generated, from her lethal claws to the end of her increasingly coke-dusted, bloodstained snout.
After teasing us with an early glimpse of Teddy Drugspin in tourist-pouncing, leg-severing action, Jimmy Warden’s script lays out a busy array of human subplots. Keri Russell plays a loving single mom; Brooklynn Prince (“The Florida Project”) is her adolescent daughter, who picks the worst possible day to head into the forest with her best friend (Christian Convery). O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and Aaron Holliday are nicely grouped as three bumbling crooks on a mission to retrieve the lost cocaine. Also in the mix are the indispensable Margo Martindale as a grouchy park ranger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a hapless animal-rights activist, Kristofer Hivju (“Game of Thrones”) as a traumatized hiker and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a police detective with a cute dog.
Don’t worry, the dog survives. Not all the others are so lucky, and “Cocaine Bear,” like most movies that turn schadenfreude into entertainment, does a reasonably good job of both scrambling and satisfying your expectations. The director Elizabeth Banks, making her third feature (after “Pitch Perfect 2” and the recent “Charlie’s Angels” reboot), has a clean way with messy action, as we see in the movie’s best scene — a delirious Depeche Mode-scored action highlight involving a gurney, a speeding ambulance and some truly jaw-dropping, wrist-snapping prosthetic wounds. Not all the bear’s victims solicit your contempt, which is another way of saying it isn’t easy to predict who lives and who dies, though you can bet the latter will include the idiot backing away toward a conveniently positioned grab-and-go window.
The suspense derives in part from the pulse-pounding exertions of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, and also from the characters’ assumption that black bears are (a) less dangerous than brown bears and (b) always sober. But it also stems from some amateur mammalogy on the part of Banks and Warden, who advance some funny, fanciful ideas how Teddy Drugspin might respond to treats, threats and other stimuli. Would she pounce on every person who crosses her path, or just the ones who themselves happen to reek of coke? Will her latest high make her hungry, or sleepy? Will the kids survive her killing spree? Have we seen the last of Prince’s character when halfway through the movie she exits, pursued by a cocaine bear?
That the bear turns out to be a mama herself, complete with her own cute little Winnie-the-Potheads, might go some way toward answering that question. It’s here that the movie, after about an hour of steadily escalating mayhem, goes unrewardingly soft. The action begins to drag, the twists get more belabored and what played at first like a gleefully unapologetic exploitation-movie exercise threatens to become a late-breaking morality play. That’s sweet and defensible in theory, I guess; come for the sniffs, stay for the sniffles. But it also suggests a failure of nerve in a movie daring enough to show two young kids tasting cocaine for the first time, in gleeful defiance of the anti-drug commercials that seized the airwaves in the ’80s and ’90s.
Banks shows us some of those commercials at the outset, though she stops short of satirizing the “Hugs, Not Drugs” campaign that was a fixture of so many elementary schools, with none other than Hugs the Bear serving as its furry, friendly mascot. Elsewhere, she pays enjoyable unsubtle homage to this story’s specific moment, cramming the soundtrack with ’80s hits (but no “Ursine o’ the Times,” alas) and having Matthew Rhys, Russell’s “The Americans” co-star, play the ill-fated Thornton in a quick prologue. Also winkingly cast is the late Ray Liotta, who famously inhaled massive quantities of coke in “Goodfellas” and here plays a ruthless drug lord in his final screen role. Does his character get an exit worthy of him? Does a bear snort in the woods?
Rating: R, for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 24 in general release
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