With a title like Cocaine Bear you’ll probably be happily anticipating one of those B-movie cultural moments. It’s a bear! On cocaine! Sign me up! You go to a film like this in the spirit of trash-loving glee. It’ll be fun. It’ll be ninety minutes of low camp entertainment rather than a four-hour Oscar-contending head-scratcher — and that can be a relief. But, in fact, and despite the publicity blitzkrieg — it’s a bear! On cocaine! — this is a standard animal-on-the-rampage affair. The cocaine doesn’t even bring much to the party. (Kids: take note.) Quite what I was expecting, I don’t know. Maybe the bear would become euphoric and chatty and stay up until the wee hours before becoming paranoid and crashing? That would have been more interesting, surely.
The film states at the outset that it’s “based on a true story” although “based on” is doing a heck of a lot of work. What happened was: in 1985 drug smugglers dropped a cocaine haul from a plane into the wilderness in Tennessee as the cargo was too heavy in flight. Three months later a dead black bear was discovered in Georgia and, as was further discovered, it had eaten the cocaine and overdosed. That would have been quite a boring film. So the filmmakers have asked: what if the bear, jacked up on coke and seeking more, encountered humans and decided to eat them? And yet they’ve somehow made their own rather boring film. Congratulations, all round.
Written by Jimmy Warden and directed by Elizabeth Banks, the film opens with the plane dump, then we’re at a national park in Georgia with an engaged couple on a hike who spot the bear not being euphoric or chatty but repeatedly hitting its head on a tree trunk, for some reason. It’s demented, they decide. Let’s flee, he says. It won’t do us any harm, she says, and those are her last words, of course. Henceforward people are dispatched in all sorts of gruesome ways. There goes a leg. That’s someone’s insides devoured. This is gory but, thankfully, it’s silly-gory rather than gory-gory. Mostly, I kept wondering: isn’t cocaine meant to diminish appetite? I’m not a party-pooper, by the way. Generally, I’m beloved at parties, just so you know.
More people are introduced to the park: a mother (Keri Russell) searching for her young daughter, a lovelorn park ranger (Margo Martindale), a cop on the hunt for the coke (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and a hapless drugs crew (Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) dispatched to recover the haul by their boss played, can you believe, by Ray Liotta. It was Liotta’s last performance but not the one he will be most remembered for. The characters are run-of-the-mill and we’re meant to consider them as “oddballs” but “idiots” might be more accurate. I was mostly on Team Bear throughout. The bear, who is CGI, and plenty realistic, overacts the least. It’s billed as a “horror comedy” but doesn’t properly land as either. The jump scares are repetitive and predictable — if the killer animal is killed it is rarely dead, in my experience — while the comedy? At the press screening I attended a few critics laughed every now and then, but they’re not the ones we respect.
This is basically a marketing concept put on screen. And it’s not that much fun seeing a computer-generated image attack sentient beings who may as well have been made out of cardboard. One last thing: the bear who overdosed and died — and is, apparently, known as Pablo Eskobear (I wish I’d thought of that) — has been stuffed and is on view in a museum in Kentucky. Book now! It’s a bear! That took cocaine! Or are you over that now? You’d best decide as it’s quite a way to go.