Cocaine Bear review – larky horror comedy is roaring good fun

Elizabeth Banks’s playfully anarchic creature-feature about a rampaging beast high on drugs is as daft as it is entertaining

“If a man and an ant were exposed to radiation simultaneously,” intones John Goodman’s B-movie maestro in Joe Dante’s 90s cult gem Matinee, “the result would be terrible indeed; for the result would be… Mant!” You can hear an echo of Goodman’s “Half man, half ant, all terror!” mantra in the pitch for this campy horror comedy in which an apex predator and a ragtag group of humans are exposed to several million dollars’ worth of class-A narcotics simultaneously and the result is… Cocaine Bear – a title so brilliantly simple and outrageously WTF? that it almost makes the movie itself redundant. Could any feature really be as much fun as the viral trailer that dropped last month, mashing up sweary kids (“There was a bear; it was fucked!”) and roaring behemoths to the pumping strains of White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)? Or is this, like 2006’s much-hyped Snakes on a Plane, just another case of all title and no trousers?

The answer to both questions is no or at least not quite. While this may not be the head-spinning chaos-fest we hoped for, nor is it “terrible indeed”. Instead, actor turned film-maker Elizabeth Banks’s third directorial feature (after Pitch Perfect 2 and the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot) is sporadically goofy fun, a scrappy carnival of ripped limbs, severed heads and spilled intestines, all softened by an only partly parodic family-centred Spielbergian sensibility.

It’s the mid-80s and up on Blood Mountain air-dropped duffle bags of drugs are snuffled by the eponymous bear, who then proceeds to eat everything and everyone. On the trail of the stash are strongman Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr) and his broken-hearted sidekick, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), son of a drug kingpin played by the late Ray Liotta, to whom Cocaine Bear is dedicated. Also in the frame are a dog-loving lawman (Isiah Whitlock Jr, nicely cheesy), a lovestruck ranger (Margo Martindale, sharing jokes about her “dusty beaver”) and a trio of wannabe local thugs in danger of losing face – literally. Most important, however, is single mom Sari (Keri Russell), on the hunt for her daughter, Dee Dee (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), and her schoolfriend Henry (Christian Convery), who have skipped school to play truant in the woods, only to discover what Shakespeare really meant when he wrote: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

From the early devouring of a Scandi hiker, a nod to the opening act of Jaws, to the bass-note growls of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score signalling the monster’s arrival, Cocaine Bear wears its influences on its sleeve. Here’s the slapstick head-cheese of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies; here’s the oddball character comedy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Meanwhile, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who first developed Jimmy Warden’s script for Scream team Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) bring their usual anarchic playfulness to bear on a creature-feature tradition that encompasses the cult 50s classic Attack of the Giant Leeches, the angry rabbit romping of the 70s stinker Night of the Lepus and the killer-pig thrills of Russell Mulcahy’s 80s feature debut, Razorback.

In true exploitation B-movie style, Cocaine Bear is preposterously billed as being “based on a true story” – that of a black bear found dead in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest in 1985 after consuming drugs dropped from a plane by cop turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton. (He subsequently baled out and was found dead in a Knoxville driveway with an unopened parachute, a bulletproof vest and $15m-worth of cocaine). “I had so much sympathy for this poor animal that was collateral damage of this ridiculous drug run,” Banks told me earlier this year, “and I remember thinking that this film would be a way to avenge that bear’s death!” Sure enough, her movie’s sympathies lie squarely with its titular creature and against the hubris of mankind (a well-worn “nature in revolt” theme), although a mirrored shot framing ursine and human families makes the cross-species connections clear.

A sprinkling of 80s hits keeps things popping along nicely, from Jefferson Starship’s opening soft-rock anthem Jane (a sly nod to Banks’s early role in Wet Hot American Summer) to a high point during an ambulance attack played out to Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough. The fact that it’s all over in 95 minutes adds to the charm. It may not be Grizzly Man meets Scarface, but it leaves Snakes on a Plane standing on the runway.

Watch a trailer for Cocaine Bear.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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