It gives me no pleasure to hate on Cocaine Bear. The director Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2, the Charlie’s Angels reboot) isn’t the chief problem, even if her mashup of dismemberment, mugging and dubious heartwarming is this month’s working definition of “tonal problems.”
But with this script, the project was cooked long before the actors got to the set, ready to interact with a digital, coked-up bear to be created further down the production pipeline.
Cocaine Bear is a title, certainly, and Universal put together a promisingly berserk trailer. The story springs from actual life, as briefly lived by an actual bear who, in 1985, discovered 88 pounds of cocaine dropped from a smuggler’s small plane into the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia.
Two deaths resulted from that incident. The smuggler died after his parachute malfunctioned and he landed in someone’s driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. The bear, meanwhile, apparently died after reading Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and giving that stuff a try.
The movie expands the scope and body count a tad. Several interlocking groups of characters – drug dealers, led by Ray Liotta in his final performance; park employees, led by Margo Martindale; concerned nurse and mother searching for her daughter, played by Keri Russell and Brooklynn Prince – cope, often fatally, with the agitated bear as the smugglers try to retrieve a duffel bag full of cocaine. Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is the Knoxville lawman on the trail.
Screenwriter Jimmy Warden sets up the various bloodbaths on cue, with the bear assuming quasi-magical properties of speed, agility, cunning and limb-strewing.
Half of it’s played for laughs; a quarter is played for jump scares and suspense; the remaining quarter, which is where Cocaine Bear eventually lands and becomes truly galling, goes for your heartstrings, even as fake entrails are getting ripped and eaten straight out of Liotta’s innards.
In simple terms, Banks and Warden are going for something like funny-SCARY-clawy-funny-stupid-funny-BLOODY-awwww.
Plenty of rooting interests come our way, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich as put-upon associates of the Liotta character, along with the ever-reliable Russell.
Yet the ensemble appears to have been encouraged to really go for it, and not worry about playing a human being unless it’s really called for. A half-hour into Cocaine Bear, everyone, person and bear alike, has become a drag.
Ultraviolence is a funny thing, unless it’s not: Here, watching Martindale’s ranger character getting her face ripped off while being dragged along a gravel road isn’t a sight gag, and it isn’t an effective shock bit. It’s just sour. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s consciously ‘80s-vibe score has more personality than what’s onscreen.
This is capped by an end credits dedication to the late Liotta, who deserved a better finale. File this one in the “well, the title was catchy” folder with Snakes On A Plane and last year’s Violent Night. – AP
Well, at least the title is catchy.