Review: "Cocaine Bear" is selling cheap thrills, but it's not so bad it's good

Don't look for irony or -- yikes! -- deeper meaning.

February 24, 2023, 4:11 AM

Don't look for irony or -- yikes! -- deeper meaning. A bear swallows a brick of cocaine and goes on a killing spree. That's "Cocaine Bear," now in theaters to make you scream with fear or laughter, or both simultaneously. It's a tricky challenge that the film meets only fitfully at best.

"Cocaine Bear" is selling cheap thrills, but it's not so bad it's good. It reminds me of another horror comedy with a great B-movie title, 2006's "Snakes on a Plane." And look how that turned out -- a jumble of shock effects that left you numb from repetition. Here we go again.

Though "Cocaine Bear" has sharper teeth than "Snakes," starting with a cast led by Keri Russell and the late Ray Liotta, it falls into the same one-joke trap. This, despite director Elizabeth Banks, a terrific actress ("Love & Mercy," "The Hunger Games") with skills behind the camera ("Pitch Perfect 2"). Here, she lets creeping blandness blunt her natural edge.

PHOTO: Movie still from "Cocaine Bear" official trailer.
Movie still from "Cocaine Bear" official trailer.
Universal Pictures

"Cocaine Bear" is actually based on a true story. In 1985, convicted drug smuggler Andrew Thornton dropped $14 million worth of cocaine from a plane he was piloting into a Georgia national park, where a 175-pound black bear ingested a bunch and died. So did Stanton, who parachuted out carrying too much weight and went splat.

End of story -- until Hollywood came along. Stanton, in a cameo from "Perry Mason" virtuoso Matthew Rhys, no sooner drops the bundle of blow than the bear -- computer supersized to 500 pounds -- gobbles it down and goes on a drug-fueled rampage. It's "Jaws" in a bear suit.

Real life again proves inadequate to the demands of big-screen entertainment. Your choice is either avoid this pulpy fiction or go along for the crass appeal being shamelessly dished out by Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden, whose credits include "The Babysitter: Killer Queen" and "Borderline."

Before it wears itself out, the film is good, grisly fun as we watch a cast of overqualified actors take on a computer-generated bear who's high on cocaine. Russell ("The Americans") stars as the film's Goldilocks. Sort of. There's no stolen porridge involved. Just a missing child.

Russell's character, Sari, is a divorced mom and career nurse. She's in the woods looking for her 12-year-old daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), a wannabe artist who's ditched school with puppy love Henry (Christian Convery) to paint a waterfall near Blood Mountain, where a certain bear -- a protective momma herself, is ready to pounce, chasing Henry up a tree. And worse.

PHOTO: Movie still from "Cocaine Bear" official trailer.
Movie still from "Cocaine Bear" official trailer.
Universal Pictures

It's a treat seeing Russell re-team with her co-star in "The Americans," the sublime Margo Martindale, who plays Liz, a forest ranger with the hots for Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an animal activist who doesn't know what to do when the bear treats Liz like a chew toy.

There's also a teen gang led by Stache (Aaron Holliday) that robs and stabs tourists. They call themselves The Duchamps, after the French Dadaist art movement. Comparisons to the iconic droogs in "A Clockwork Orange" don't hold up since these punks are mostly food for the bear to rip apart and snack on.

It's the bad guys who resist hardest. The great Ray Liotta, who died in May 2022, excels as Syd, a drug kingpin who wants that lost cocaine. Screw the bear. When Syd's boozer son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) bungles the job, Syd brings in Eddie's best friend Daveed (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) to close the deal. Not so fast.

It's clear that Banks means for Eddie and Daveed, along with Sari and her daughter, to provide her film's already shaky balance of mirth and mayhem with an emotional core. No dice. Banks also tried the same thing and failed in her flop 2019 remake of "Charlie's Angels."

Despite the bite that "Cocaine Bear" is expected to take out of the box office, the movie -- shot in Ireland by the way (go figure) -- doesn't live up to its grindhouse potential. The R-rated carnage keeps diluting the laughs, and vice versa. I guess the moral of this missed opportunity is that a bear can't have its cocaine and eat it too.