starring Keri Russell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ray Liotta
screenplay by Jimmy Warden
directed by Elizabeth Banks
by Walter Chaw The first 45 minutes or so of Elizabeth Banks's Cocaine Bear deliver everything the title promises: A bear, behaving erratically, mauls European hikers and precocious children daring one another to eat a tablespoon of what Jay McInerney would know as Bolivian Marching Powder. The last 45 minutes are an enervated slog heavy on convention and eager to pull all the punches the film was landing with malicious glee in the first half. It's almost as though a switch is flipped right around the time a pair of hapless paramedics, Beth (Kahyun Kim) and Tom (meme-meister Scott Seiss), stumble on a terrible scene before becoming the centrepiece of another--almost as though a decision was made to suddenly try to carve out a coherent three-act structure from agreeably bloody chaos. To what end? To make a play for awards-season consideration? To appease some imaginary audience coming to Cocaine Bear for an adventure story with not one happy ending but two? The only audience it's ultimately pandering to are non-creatives with a say in the process, congratulating themselves for forcing a movie about a bear doing murders while tweaking on nose candy to wrap up its various threads in tidy little bows. What a shame.
What a shame a movie about a coked-up bear has a scene where drug trafficker Daveed, played by O'Shea Jackson Jr., beats up three punks in a hiking-station bathroom. What a shame there's a subplot involving a Black detective (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) on the trail of some missing cocaine who ventures out of his jurisdiction into the Georgia backwoods. What a shame every opportunity to comment on the cultural clash of Ice Cube's kid in a county adjacent to the one where Deliverance was shot is squandered by virtue of the filmmakers not having the head or the heart to say anything about anything. The closest to culture war we get is the baseball jersey Daveed fetishizes and the pink jumpsuit vacationing nurse Sari (Keri Russell) wears. Cocaine Bear likewise misses the chance to land a few dark gags involving peppy middle-schoolers Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) dealing with the consequences of profound cocaine intoxication. Alas, the movie doesn't really have the stomach to hurt children even minimally, nor does it have the balls to injure the Computer Bear, I mean Cocaine Bear, including declining to Dragonslayer said bear's junkie cubs. It promises to be lawless, is what I'm saying, and very quickly shows itself to be entirely uninterested in transgressing boundaries. It's a polite movie about a bear out of its mind on cocaine.
People who haven't seen many horror movies and don't like them will argue there's a lot of gore in Cocaine Bear, but honestly, there's more gore in any single episode of a television medical drama. I did like the scene where a trigger-happy game warden (Margo Martindale) kills a stoner who doesn't have the sense to duck, but I didn't like when the scene this sets up--her also murdering Tom the Paramedic with her Constitutionally-protected friendly fire--doesn't happen. I appreciated the chaos of Beth trying to drive an ambulance super-fast down dirt roads, though I'm not sure I entirely appreciate the old trope of Asians not being good drivers getting paid off in a way that's this frustrating, and fatal, for the two white people in her care. It would be easy not to make this choice, but a choice needed to have been made. Whatever, there's not enough "there" there to upbraid Cocaine Bear's politics. (It just seems cruel, given how desperately the film tries to be innocuous.) For the people who will see it, a good chunk of it consists of a bear going apeshit in one of those Prophecy/Grizzly/Jaws-in-a-jungle subgenre concepts we don't get enough of anymore before the film starts apologizing for itself. Too, you get Alden Ehrenreich playing a suicidally depressed henchman, and Ray Liotta in one of his final screen performances as a crime lord who knows how all this looks and can't believe the idiots he has to work with. Amen, man. Amen.