The enjoyment of a film boils down to its context. That’s not a cop-out, nor is it really a requisite. You might wonder why this context is important enough to know when discussing Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear.
It isn’t important, other than distinguishing the characteristics of Cocaine Bear along the lines of what I am already familiar with.
Loosely inspired by actual events in 1985, Elizabeth Banks‘ Cocaine Bear shouldn’t work. Characters are at their nerve center, and, despite some questionable computer graphics work on the main antagonist, the ensemble that Banks assembled makes the entire story work.
Yes, it’s gory. Yes, there are some excellently done scares. Yes, Jimmy Warden’s script even pokes fun at Wikipedia and the “Just Say No” campaign that ran when I was a kid. Cocaine Bear is not a call to use drugs. It still manages to deliver an anti-drug message. However, in 2023, we’re a lot more of an enlightened civilization, and that particular message drives the film.
I wish the bear had gotten that message, but then we wouldn’t have the event to talk about almost 40 years later. Speaking of the events depicted in the film, they vary widely from actual accounts, and an essential character in Cocaine Bear is the bear, who stumbles upon the fallen cocaine and proceeds to ingest it. The real bear, who wasn’t discovered until three months after the event, is on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington if you’re interested.
Where Banks and Warden make Cocaine Bear shine is in the story’s fully developed characterizations. Keri Russell is Sari, a single mom with a latch-key kid, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who is rambunctious enough to know better than to get herself into trouble but does so anyway. Early in the film, Banks visually establishes their fractured relationship. While not a new character trend, this effort is based on Sari as a fighter, akin to Alien’s Ripley.
Meanwhile, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) is a fixer, working for the man whose cocaine shipment was dumped over a Georgia forest. The man happens to be Syd Dentwood, played by none other than Ray Liotta in one of his final roles. Daveed, along with Eddie, played by Alden Ehrenreich, is tasked by Syd to retrieve the dumped load. Only Eddie is going through domestic troubles, and Daveed needs to keep them on task while consoling Eddie. Daveed and Eddie reminded me of Jack Walsh and Jonathan Mardukas from Martin Brest’s Midnight Run – they are both resourceful but hapless in the story’s context. While unintentional, the context of Midnight Run to Cocaine Bear is that their antics endear themselves to the audience. Cocaine Bear plays to the same overall strengths that made Brest’s film work all those years ago – a thinly-veiled threat looms throughout the film while comedic antics break up the thrills; it’s rather brilliant.
Hot on Daveed and Eddie’s trail is Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr), a local detective following up on the grizzly (punny or not, you decide) discovery of Thornton’s body, leading him to the Georgia mountain. A sequence toward the latter half of the second act has Bob confronting Daveed and Eddie. The three characters play off each other with a timing I haven’t seen in a while. Well, not since Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night this past December.
As all these characters descend upon the forested mountain, we run into Margo Martindale’s Liz, a forest ranger, and Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an animal rights activist. Martindale, Cocaine Bear’s MVP, unabashedly plays Liz, plays the tough guy while fawning over Peter, while Peter could give two hoots about her. There’s a line about beavers that got the audience roaring. She plays the toughie for three teenagers who are accosting tourists.
More bodies were left behind as a result of the film’s antics rather than the actions of a 500-pound, coked-up bear. Banks maintains the menace the bear represents, and its activities are both thrilling and comical simultaneously. However, this is one misstep the film makes: the computer-generated elements of the bear that make her look less photoreal than was intended. Some of this is due to the nighttime settings that cinematographer John Guleserian captured. These effects shots, though noticeable, were not distracting enough to take you out of the movie. The interaction between the bear and the cast created a sympathy for the bear: she didn’t ask to have cocaine dropped on her forest, and she certainly didn’t count on having to defend herself against hapless human beings who think they know better when they really don’t.
But finders keepers, right?
I jest, of course. A bear wouldn’t know what to do with drugs other than nose into them like common garbage, and when she comes up against Sari, Daveed, Eddie, Liz, and the others, even in her hopped up and raged state, it is mother against mother. At the end of the day, our protagonist and antagonist are protecting our loved ones, which matters the most. That tie binds the characters, deflecting their domestic situations in the face of the threat.
Then there’s Syd. With shaggy hair and clothes that look like they came out of the 70s, Liotta hams up his demanding demeanor. The man was a gift to cinema, and Banks captures Liotta in just the right light, focusing on the actor’s comedic and dramatic sensibilities. In a sense, he is as dangerous as the bear is, at least on the surface.
Cocaine Bear is the type of trip whose story is utterly unbelievable; the characters endear themselves to us, and the story gives us something tangible in the way of feeling beyond being scared of the bear.
Cocaine Bear doesn’t push anything on its audience, but it does draw a line in the forest between the good and the bad, and as long as you don’t overthink the film, you’ll leave the cinema as high as a mountain bear on cocaine. Have a party, and see Cocaine Bear with a crowd. It will be a real bang!
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Written by Jimmy Warden
Starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys, Ray Liotta
R, 95 minutes, Universal Pictures