Cocaine Bear is Good, Actually
First, let’s talk about what really happened. Drug runner Andrew C. Thornton II was in a small plane flying over the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Inside the plane was his accomplice and a truly astounding amount of cocaine. The weight became problematic for the small aircraft, and Thornton began tossing bricks of cocaine out the hatch. He then leaped out the plane while wearing a parachute. For some reason, his chute failed to open and Thornton was killed.
That took place on September 11, 1985. On December 23 of the same year, officials from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found a number of the containers torn apart. They also found the body of a black bear. To quote Wikipedia, “The chief medical examiner from the Georgia State Crime Lab, Dr. Kenneth Alonso, stated that its stomach was “literally packed to the brim with cocaine”, although he estimated the bear had absorbed only 3 to 4 grams into its bloodstream at the time of its death.”
There are two indisputable facts here.
- Like the majority of criminals, Thornton was quite stupid.
- The bear was extremely high for a brief period of time, then dropped dead.
So how are you supposed to make a movie out of events that are little more than a weird anecdote? What are you supposed to do, just make stuff up? In this particular instance, yes! The new horror-comedy Cocaine Bear is perhaps five percent “based on a true story,” and the end result is a blast.
What’s the movie about? A bear gets addicted to cocaine and becomes an unstoppable murder machine.
Oh, you want more? Fine…
As in real life, drug dealing dipstick Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) merrily chucks numerous bags of Peruvian marching powder out of a plane. Along with the coke, he accidentally chucks himself out of the plane. Shortly thereafter, a black bear makes what proves to be a life-altering discovery – she loves cocaine!
Now high out of her ursine mind, Cocaine Bear embarks on what the movie advertisements refer to as a roaring rampage of revenge. During her journey, she’ll meet (and in some cases kill horribly) the following:
- Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his friend Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), a couple of fixers trying to recover the missing bags of Big C.
- Syd (Ray Liotta), their boss.
- Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a cop looking to bust Syd
- Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), a precocious middle-school kid and her pal Henry (Christian Convery).
- Sari (Kari Russell), the mother of Dee Dee who is less than thrilled to discover her daughter has ditched school.
- Liz (Margo Martindale), a horny Ranger and her oblivious crush/wildlife activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
Surely you remember the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane, and surely you remember that this particular film promised ludicrous fun based on the title and failed to keep that promise. It brings me joy to report that Cocaine Bear is the best possible version of a movie titled Cocaine Bear.
The important point to understand is not that Cocaine Bear is not a “so bad it’s good” cheesefest. Director Elizabeth Banks has made a fast, fun, and gory as hell time at the movies. Better yet, she’s done so with genuine skill and creativity. A lesser film would have only shown Cocaine Bear mauling her way through her victims. Banks, on the other hand, has built setpieces that are both creative and highly entertaining. A particular standout involves four people, a gazebo, a truncated gunfight, and Cocaine Bear herself in all her glory.
The other critical aspect to make a film like this work is effectively balancing characters. You’ve seen slasher movies populated with either the most unlikable people to walk the earth or barely two-dimensional ciphers. Here, screenwriter Jimmy Warden takes just enough time to introduce the cast and give them broadly interesting character traits before the insanity kicks in. Warden also has a vicious sense of humor that fits the mood of the piece nicely.
A quick word is necessary about the portrayal of cocaine in this film. Remember the old Popeye cartoons and how his eating of spinach would save the day? That’s basically what cocaine use is in this universe. While it is highly addictive, it basically bestows superpowers on whoever consumes it, and the only drawback is the need for occasional naps. Now, you might be someone who deeply understands the damage that drug use can do to a person, a family, and a community. To that I’ll say that I respect your experience and that you should probably give Cocaine Bear a pass. There’s no use in being offended.
Are the performances here nuanced, subtle, spare in the style of an Ingmar Bergman film? They are not. That’s okay! The trick here for the actors is to go broad and weird while understanding that they can’t match the bonkers-ass intensity of a CGI bear on drugs. Everyone here understands the assignment. In one of his final films, the late Ray Liotta plays profane scumbag Syd. Part of Liotta’s genius is that his character is more annoyed by the Cocaine Bear than terrified, and that choice makes things more amusing. The same goes for O’Shea Jackson Jr., and his Daveed is a guy stuck dealing with the Cocaine Bear, an ineffective high school gang, and a deeply depressed partner. All the while he just wants to find the missing drugs and go home. Daveed is like a somewhat more competent Wile E. Coyote. He’s not stupid, just a guy with bear-sized bad luck.
A teeny-tiny, eensy-weensy part of Cocaine Bear is a true story, one concerning a man who was very bad at doing crime and a bear that suffered a tragic end. The bear-sized majority of the movie…you know, the one involving children daring each other to eat cocaine and a hopped up ursus Americanus outrunning an ambulance, that part is pure uncut nonsense.