Grin & Bear It

Cast of familiar faces put a ferociously flip, rip-roaring spin on a true incident from the ’80s

Cocaine Bear
Starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Margo Martindale and Alden Ehrenreich
Directed by Elizabeth Banks

In theaters Friday, Feb. 24

Sometimes, movies have titles that leave you wondering, or might be misleading. Quantum of Solace? Don’t look for it on a map—and what the heck is a Quantum of Solace, anyway? Reservoir Dogs? Watch the whole movie, and you won’t see a single reservoir, or any canines. A Clockwork Orange? No clock, no orange. I screened Armageddon Time last year and liked it, but when it was over, I still felt the title was, well, a tad obscure for a story about a Jewish boy growing up in Queens during the 1980s.

There’s nothing misleading or obscure, however, about Cocaine Bear. It’s 100% on the nose, about a bear that does cocaine—a lot of cocaine.

It’s an outrageously fun—and often quite hilarious—spin on the old “man vs. nature” theme, about people pitted against an apex predator and fighting to keep the body count low. Think Jaws in the Great Smoky Mountains, or Leonardi DiCaprio getting mauled by that grizzly in The Revenant, but, well, a lot more unbridled, unhinged fun than either of those. In this case, the predator is a black bear flying high on blow from a drug smuggler’s crashed airplane.

Black bears—as we learn from some onscreen information from Wikipedia, which opens the film—aren’t generally threats to humans; they’re mostly just looking for something to eat.

But a bear hoovering copious snootfuls of snow? Well, watch out!

And, as you might have heard, it’s based on a stranger-than-life true story from the mid-1980s, when a 175-pound bear did, indeed, come upon a duffle bag filled with cocaine cargo dropped from a smuggler’s airplane in the mountains of east Tennessee. When wildlife agents came across the bear, its stomach gorged with about $15 million worth of nose candy, it was dead. A medical examiner at the time said no creature, not even a large one, would have a chance surviving that much coke. There was no rampage, no attacks on people, just a major, unfortunately fatal OD, a sad end to a majestic creature of the forest.

So, the movie takes a few liberties—well, a lot—with the facts, as movies sometimes do. Actor-director Elizabeth Banks adds to her behind-the-camera resume (which includes directing one of the Pitch Perfect movies, and the 2019 remake of Charlie’s Angels) with this ferociously entertaining action-comedy romp as an ensemble cast of familiar-face characters converges, eventually colliding with the cocaine bear. She finds just the right tone of black (bear) humor, spicing the story with a few severed limbs and goosing it all with some well-timed, funhouse-level gotchas.

Keri Russell is menaced by a bear coked up on nose candy.

It’s a wild ride as a park ranger (Margo Martindale), wildlife inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and single mom (Keri Russell) venture into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to look for a couple of young school-skipping teens (Brooklyn Prince, who made her debut as a wayward kid in the critically hailed The Florida Project, and Christian Convery). Meanwhile, the bear has already attacked a tourist couple (Kristofer Hivju from Game of Thrones and Dutch actress Hannah Hoekstra), while a motley crew of small-time drug-smuggling middlemen (rapper/actor O’Shea Jackson, Alden Ehrenreich—he was young Han Solo in the Star Wars spinoff Solo—and, in one of his final roles before his death last year, Ray Liotta) arrive in the area. They’re hoping to intercept the dropped drugs and scoot before a local cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) can sniff out their trail.  

Brooklynn Prince and Henry Christian get more than a tardy slip when they skip school.

You can’t have a movie about a wild, drug-crazed bear without a few bear attacks, can you? The mama bear in Cocaine Bear is completely computer-generated, designed by the same topline effects company that crafted amazing creatures for King Kong, Avatar and Lord of the Rings. But she behaves, well, certainly not like Yogi, Fozzie Bear or Paddington—more like you might expect a big wild animal on toot would really behave, out-of-its mind crazy and desperately craving another snort. (At one point, mama bear does a quick line off a lower leg recently detached from, well, you’ll just have to see it.) There’s blood and guts, but they’re balanced by the well-calibrated, giddily gruesome humor of watching an ensemble of recognizable actors gamely throw themselves into the merry, deep-woods mayhem.

As one of them finds out, pinned underneath an exhausted, zonked-out black bear passed out on top of him, that’s not somewhere you want to be.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a cop on the cocaine trail.

Do kids and baby bear cubs get into the stash, too? Yep. Can a cocaine-fueled bear outrun a speeding ambulance? Yes, she can. Is it wise to try to escape a bear—especially one zooming on coke—by climbing high into a tree, or locking a door? Um, no, it is not.

This could very well become a new cult classic, in the vein of some other movies that have successfully found ripe, riotously rich comedic tones in dangerous, deadly situations, like Werewolves Among Us and Snakes on a Plane, turning something frightfully fearful into something else, something fun, flipped-out and funny.

It’s a rip-roaring romp, with lots of rip and lots of roar—and a message from the ‘80s that still resonates today: Keep your stash of cocaine away from the bear!

—Neil Pond


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