On September 11, 1985, Andrew C. Thornton II, a former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler, attempted to lighten his airplane’s load by dropping a cocaine-filled duffel bag over Georgia before bailing out himself. A North American black bear weighing approximately 175 pounds inadvertently found the duffel bag, consumed its illicit contents, and apparently went on an opioid-fuelled bender unheard of then or since. Neither the pilot nor the bear survived (RIP), although the nugget of that now semi-mythical story loosely serves as the basis for Cocaine Bear, an R-rated, blood-and-gore-soaked, darkly comic, horror-thriller nimbly directed by Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) from a drum-tight screenplay by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen).
Unsurprisingly, Cocaine Bear centres on the eponymous bear, which is beefed up to a mammoth 500 pounds to add considerable weight, if not exactly gravitas, to its drug-fuelled rampage through a Georgia national park. Some unfortunate campers expire almost immediately — although not without plenty of rending of garments and limbs — while others live to die another day (or moment), old-school disaster style. As such, they’re broadly written and even more broadly played. All of this keeps within Banks’s mandate to emphasize the comic, absurd nature of the ever-escalating plot and its grisly, gory, gnarly permutations.
Said unfortunates include, but are not limited to Sari (Keri Russell), a local nurse searching for her truant preteen daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), and Dee Dee’s partner in juvenile crime, Henry (Christian Convery). Then there’s sidearm-packing forest ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and her current crush, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is a wildlife expert of some kind. Eddie Dentwood (Alden Ehrenreich), the scion of a mid-level drug-dealing family and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), his onetime friend and criminal partner. The latter was sent by Eddie’s father, Syd (the late Ray Liotta), to retrieve the missing cocaine before Syd’s suppliers arrive at his door and demand payment for the shipment. A dog-loving police detective, Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), also joins the fray, as does a wholesome Scandinavian couple, Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra), who encounter the coke-enraged bear on a nature trek.
Following established eco-horror/disaster tropes, most, if not all of the characters, serve as fodder or appetizers for the enraged, fix-hungry bear on its perpetual search for more cocaine. Anyone who gets in the bear’s way likely ends up dead or maimed (not always in the order). Meanwhile, the sheer ineptitude of everyone involved practically dooms them to making one bad, no-good, hilariously awful decision after another. Sheer dumb luck also plays a factor, although greed and hubris, whether for recovering the cocaine or scoring a major bust, also play a significant role in deciding who survives and who ends up on the wrong end of the bear’s sharp claws and even sharper teeth. Easily the highlight in a film filled with highlights, the best sequence features a ranger station under siege by the bear, a handful of under-prepared and panic-prone characters, and a late-arriving ambulance that’s operated by two of the most unlucky paramedics ever put on film.
With a comic-absurdist tone throughout, not to mention a title that foregrounds the outlandishness of the premise and its onscreen execution by Banks and her collaborators, Cocaine Bear never fails to deliver on its promise. It’s a mix of creative, slasher-style kills, offbeat humour, and a CGI bear that comes closer than most VFX beasts in terms of being both believable and giddily terrifying. More than once, audiences will find themselves highly relieved that they’re on the opposite side of the screen than the characters who are running, climbing, and praying for their lives.
Cocaine Bear opens theatrically in North America on February 24th.