By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
Some true stories are too wild to believe. The story of the Cocaine Bear, a 500 lb black bear that ingested cocaine dropped from an airplane in 1985, is one of those stories. In many ways, a film adaptation of these ‘too-wild-to-be-true’ events almost writes itself and was inevitable given the raw potential of its premise.
Taking extensive liberties with its source material, director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) and writer Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen) took advantage of this potential with their new film Cocaine Bear. Featuring an ensemble cast, including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, and Ray Liota, Cocaine Bear follows an oddball collective of parents, kids, drug smugglers, park rangers, tourists, and cops who all find themselves deep within a Georgia forest accompanied by a 500 lb black bear on a cocaine-fueled rampage.
The opening moments of Cocaine Bear feature a drug smuggler, played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, who accidentally kills himself when unloading duffle bags of cocaine from an airplane mid-flight. His death is followed by several quotes, attributed to Wikipedia, about the inherent friendliness and gentle nature of wild bears. It’s evident from mere moments into the film’s runtime that Elizabeth Banks and company are going all-in with the craziness of Cocaine Bear. What proceeds these scenes are 90 minutes of uncannily dark humor, grotesque violence, and an ensemble cast running away from a big CGI bear.
Cocaine Bear lives up to its premise as a strange and demented film endeavor, but struggles with tonal inconsistencies throughout. Banks relies heavily on humor generated from the film’s core premise – a bear high on cocaine. While the concept itself may bring a chuckle initially, it quickly becomes unsettling to see the systematic and grisly extermination of innocent person after innocent person at the hands of a confused bear. This discomfort would be fine if the film featured a healthy dose of humor in other forms, but the screenplay by Jimmy Warden lacks a wittiness and cleverness that would have greatly elevated Cocaine Bear. What results is a movie that will likely be uncomfortable for some, but make those with a particularly morbid sense of humor laugh hysterically.
Despite issues with tone, director Elizabeth Banks triumphs with a crowd-pleasing and ceaselessly entertaining theatrical experience that demands viewing with an audience. Propelling forward at an extraordinarily brisk pace, Cocaine Bear doesn’t leave the audience much time to mourn victims of the bear or contemplate much of anything in a deeper manner. In doing so, Banks crafts a highly experiential film, one that might not hold together as well if exposed to serious thought, but one that is highly likely to give audiences a good time.
Banks’ success with Cocaine Bear can also be attributed to her ensemble approach for the film. Cocaine Bear lacks a sole central character, rather opting for an approach that hops from scene to scene and group of characters to group of characters, who all, for one reason or another, find themselves converging on the bear. Some pockets of characters are more captivating than others, with the narrative following Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s characters being a particular highlight. Also fans of the acclaimed FX drama The Americans will enjoy seeing Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, and Matthew Rhys all feature in the same project again. And, following his passing last year, Cocaine Bear marks one of the last performances of Ray Liota, who the film is dedicated in loving memory to. Amidst this excellent ensemble though, it is young actor Aaron Holliday who shines brightest. Holliday, who previously played small roles in the HBO series Euphoria and Sharp Objects, plays a strange, vandalizing teenager who accompanies Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr.’s characters as they search for the missing cocaine. Holliday plays one of the film’s quirkier characters and delivers his various odd and witty remarks with a delightful Southern twang.
Cocaine Bear lives up to its premise as a wild theatrical experience that demands viewing with an audience. Tonal inconsistencies and a lack of variability in its style of humor mean the film becomes quite unsettling when exposed to any degree of deeper thought, but director Elizabeth Banks propels the film forward at such extraordinary pace that such issues are easier to overlook. Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Aaron Holliday are particular highlights amidst an impressive ensemble making up the oddball host of characters trying to survive the cocaine bear. One of the crazier ‘true stories’ ever brought to film, Cocaine Bear is a crowd-pleaser like no other.