COCAINE BEAR – Review by Rachel West

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What if a bear was high on cocaine?

That’s essentially the entire premise of Cocaine Bear and if you had hoped for something more than that, you’re out of luck.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), Cocaine Bear is very loosely inspired by true events. Emphasis on “very”.

Cocaine Bear’s concept comes from the 1985 true story of narcotics officer-turned-drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton (portrayed in the film in a fantastic cameo by Matthew Rhys) who fell out of a plane to his death when his parachute failed to open after dropping duffel bags of cocaine over a Georgia national park. In real life, a black bear did indeed ingest the drugs and died shortly thereafter, but what if the bear developed an insatiable taste for the drug and would stop at nothing to get its next hit? That is precisely the impetus behind the movie.

An ensemble comedy, the film sets viewers up by following a number of players who have all converged on Chattahoochee National Forest where most of the drugs have ended up after falling from the sky.

There’s overworked single mom Sari (Keri Russell) who is looking for her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and pal Henry (Christian Convery) after they skipped school and headed into the park. Assisting her are Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and wild animal specialist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). With a strange romantic subplot between them, Liz and Peter have been having trouble with the Duchamp teen gang (J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna, and Aaron Holliday) robbing people at knifepoint in the park.

Then there is police officer Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who has pursued not-too-bright drug dealers Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) into the woods as they were sent to recover as much of the cocaine as they can by Eddie’s drug kingpin dad, Syd (the late Ray Liotta, in his final role). Plus, throw in some unfortunate foreign hikers and a pair of paramedics who just happen to be in front of the wrong bear at the wrong time and you have the human cast of Cocaine Bear.

But it doesn’t really matter who these characters are or what their motivations are, because at the end of the day, this movie isn’t about them, it’s about a bear high on cocaine. We don’t need to care about any of the characters and Warden’s script doesn’t really give us room to because it doesn’t matter. The high points of the story are all about the drugged-out bear looking for its next fix and the people are just around to inadvertently give it access to more cocaine and become snacks.

The actors here know they’re not the real draw of Cocaine Bear with most of them seeming to play into the comedy, especially Martindale. If anyone were to stand out from the human cast in terms of character development, it would be unlikely drug dealers and friends, Eddie and Daveed. Eherenreich and Jackson, Jr. make a great likeable duo on screen with more depth given to their friendship than is probably deserved in a movie like Cocaine Bear.

Elizabeth Banks’ direction here is competent and while her talents behind-the-camera was better utilized in Pitch Perfect 2, she delivers a perfectly serviceable film. However, Warden’s script doesn’t push as much boundaries as it could and even with a runtime of 95 minutes, Cocaine Bear feels overly long and overstuffed with too many minute plot points. Intermittent gore is mixed with jokes that more often than not fall flat. Watching in the cinema with an audience, some of the wilder and more over-the-top moments of violence got the biggest reactions, but ultimately, we’re all just here for the bear.

While the movie certainly has more moments of a bear high on cocaine than possibly any film that has come before it, there still isn’t enough cocaine bear in Cocaine Bear. The movie grapples with what story it really wants to tell, simply mashing all the different character journeys into one incredible messy and dark ending. But literally dark. The climax of the film takes place at night and the scenes are so dimly lit, it’s hard to even see some of the action on screen.

Ultimately, no one who wasn’t already sold on the concept of watching a bear get high on cocaine will be convinced to see this movie and that’s perfectly fine.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at ThatShelf.com. She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here