Elizabeth Banks Gets Audiences High on Violence in The Blood-Soaked Dark Comedy ‘Cocaine Bear’

Truth may be stranger than fiction (one only has to look at the last decade or so to confirm that) but who really cares about the truth behind the real story in a movie like Cocaine Bear?

Audiences need no prompting to know there are movies based on true events and there are those inspired by them. Cocaine Bear makes no secret of its intention to place itself firmly in the latter category, and it’s the better for its decision to take the true story of a bear’s death by cocaine overdose in 1985 and transform it into a darkly hilarious odyssey of those who are caught up in its path.

Image Credit: Universal Studios

In reality, the bear who had the misfortune to consume cocaine tossed from a malfunctioning drug runner’s plane took no prisoners or lives, but a little – or a lot of – bloodshed rarely hurts moviegoers, so why break a habit? Especially when the movie makes the obvious yet satisfying choice of keeping the events to 1985 for maximum nostalgia and no cell phones to widen the plot holes.

No Reunion Here

A barely recognizable Matthew Rhys tosses the goods, then quickly kicks the bucket before he ever has a chance to reunite with his The Americans co-star Keri Russell, Russell is all heart and relatability as a nurse and single mom to her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). After the bear consumes cocaine, the ensemble coalesces and is quickly dispatched to various bloody ends and severed limbs. It is Russell who emerges as the movie’s heart as she journeys into the forest where it all goes down, first as a potential disciplinarian to dish out the consequences of skipping school, then as a grimly determined mama bear in her own right who is determined to bring her child home alive.

Image Credit: Universal Studios

The real irony of Cocaine Bear, which is eager to skewer the era’s anti-drug PSAs and much of its sprawling cast in general, is that it’s unable to laugh at the most sacred American cow of all – the family. That’s not to say it doesn’t push the envelope, since Dee Dee and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) are quick to identify and try the cocaine they stumble across by ingesting it in the most incompetent way possible, doing away with any notions of angelic innocence. But in a movie that’s counting on audiences being in on the joke when hikers remark “We have such good luck in nature” before the bear proves the contrary, the real terror is alienating them.

Nature may take plenty of revenge on man’s folly, but it’s family that emerges as the true defining force as lessons are learned and friends reconnect. There’s even a kind of scared straight program for those friends, the drug dealers Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) tasked with tracking the lost shipment on behalf of their unredeemable drug lord, played by Ray Liotta, whom the film is dedicated to. PSAs never really went away, but some have become so good they’re barely recognizable, even when they have all the instantly recognizable stock characters.

Bear Necessities

Jimmy Warden’s screenplay mostly makes it work as it hops nimbly from character to character as paths are established, then parallel, diverge, and occasionally cross. It generally makes the most of everyone’s particular set of skills, with Margo Martindale’s incompetent park ranger stealing every scene; less so for Isiah Whitlock Jr., who doesn’t quite get his due as a good cop who’s so concerned about the people he’s trying to bring in he calls a truce when their mutual problem butts in on their potential face off.

Image Credit: Universal Studios

The one who’s responsible for it all keeps herself off-screen, with director Elizabeth Banks gleefully following in the tradition of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, ramping up rocking soundtrack and violence alike as she shows the boys how to get bloody action right. She can’t inject real soul into the CGI bear, and there’s no real fear on behalf of those who emerge as the clear MVPs, but the darkly funny humor makes it satisfying enough when it’s time for the natural world and family to really bite back, and there’s enough chemistry in the cast to more than carry the weight any time Cocaine Bear shows the slightest signs of dragging.

Maybe everyone figures that parents have gone through enough and the so-called deserving ones should be rewarded by surviving and bonding anew with their offspring. But when everyone involved is also having such a bloody good time, chances are few will object.

Rating 7/10 SPECS

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.