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Cocaine Bear ★★★★



Director: Elizabeth Banks

Cast: Ray Liotta, Keri Russel, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys

Release Date: 24th February 2023

Over the years, creature features have always reiterated that people, no matter what, shouldn’t mess with nature because any effort to do otherwise will end up biting them in the ass or worse, having something bitten off. Films such as The Meg, Snakes on a Plane, Eight Legged Freaks, and Roar (regarded as the most dangerous film ever made) have seen animals exert their dominance in their natural habitat – but what happens when an apex predator gets involved in drugs? You get the latest film by Pitch Perfect 2 star and director Elizabeth Banks.

Based on a true story, Cocaine Bear stars an ensemble cast that includes Keri Russel, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, and the late Ray Liotta. The film follows a group of characters who venture into the wilderness in Tennesee, only to encounter an unpredictable American black bear who has developed an alarming drug addiction after getting hooked on ditched pails of cocaine.

Although real-life events inspired Cocaine Bear, the plot sounds ridiculous with certain elements being fictionalised for entertainment value. The real Cocaine Bear did not go on a murderous rampage – it did, however, die from an overdose due to 40 ingested packets of cocaine before being stuffed and put on display in a Kentucky shopping centre. So, Banks, co-producers Lord and Miller, and screenwriter Jimmy Warden wisely implement a more fantastical albeit gory approach to this larger-than-life tale.

Taking place in 1985, the film sees drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) drop millions of dollars worth of cocaine from a plane in mid-air over Tennesee. This not only attracts local law enforcement such as detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr) but also drug kingpin Syd (Liotta), his depressed son Eddie (Ehrenreich) and fixer Daveed (Jackson, Jr) who venture to retrieve the drugs. Meanwhile, single mother Sari (Russell) is trying to find her young daughter Dee Dee (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) as they skip school for an art adventure.

With the bear being the ‘star’ of the film, the characters mostly meander through the off-beaten track and fill in awkwardly silent intervals with nonsensical chatter. There is some semblance of emotivity among certain characters such as the unreciprocated romance between lovelorn park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and animal rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), not to mention Eddie’s grief from recently losing his wife and struggles with being a father. However, any form of character development goes out the window as they quickly cower in fear and disbelief when they come face-to-face with a real-life bear that has developed a nose for cocaine. It is not until the final act that Warden uses a parent’s unconditional love to build some predictable but timely tension to bookend the narrative, even though it feels redundant by this point.

Despite the dangers of drugs, it is used as a comic foil throughout Cocaine Bear. From the super-serious 1980s federal adverts that highlight the severity of cocaine to the bear’s growing addiction, the film outlines that it is dangerous but it weirdly doesn’t say why – just that people shouldn’t be involved with it. Even nurse Sari doesn’t reiterate the side effects of cocaine – she is too preoccupied with finding her daughter while avoiding the wild animal attacking her – and the younger characters seem cool with trying it, albeit incorrectly. This nonchalant angle to drugs may weird certain audiences out but as we have already established, Cocaine Bear isn’t your typical creature feature.

The involvement of Deadpool producers Lord and Miller is evident from the outset as Cocaine Bear delivers bouts of unadulterated horror and hilarity. Warden’s screenplay is also littered with gigglesome quips and interactions, enabling Banks’ ballsy direction to amp up the entertainment factor with gloriously violent set pieces and brilliantly timed moments of shock. Even the cast embraces the chaos with aplomb as they deliver a melee of performances that help support the occasionally inconsistent narrative through comedy and sass.

We’re only in February, but Cocaine Bear is destined to be a cult film where audiences can just indulge in its guilt-free farce and gore. Yes, it mostly involves a bear on cocaine, and the chaos that ensues is bat-crap crazy, but it is 93 minutes of pure entertainment.

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