★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Inspired by true events! That is a usually dubious association that many horror movies will use to promote their films, and give it the stamp of authenticity. But when a story as strange as this one makes that claim, it becomes legendary. As it has been noted in Vanity Fair, and elsewhere, the movie holds true to these facts:
- In 1985 Former cop turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton bailed out of his airplane after dropping 12 duffel bags (Millions of dollars) of cocaine into the Chattahoochie National Forest in Northern Georgia.
- Thornton must have suffered an accident jumping out of his plane because his main chute did not open and he was found dead in the driveway of a Knoxville Tennessee home.
- A 175 lb. female black bear came into contact with the cocaine and overdosed, and was found dead in the forest having 3 -4 grams of cocaine in her bloodstream.
- The coke was never found, and was assumed to have been picked up in an elaborate Appalachian smuggling operation.
But, that doesn’t make for a great gonzo horror movie, does it? Elizabeth Banks and her team have reimagined the story, if the bear had found the cocaine, ingested it, got addicted and extremely aggressive.
Now THAT’S A MOVIE!
The buzz about this movie started generating last fall, and the fact that a big studio like Universal was willing to take a chance on movie with the taboo specter of cocaine as a central plot device. The trailer landed, and that cemented the desire to catch this cinema curiosity.
Long story short: This movie is great fun. It is gory, and you of course find yourself rooting for the bear. It is blessed with a solid and talented veteran cast including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr. , Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock, Margo Martindale, Kristofer Hivju and the late, great Ray Liotta. In truth, if there is a weakness to Cocaine Bear it might be that there are so many characters that you spend a little more time with them and less time with the bear. On the plus side of that equation, for a horror fan… more bear victims!
In this re-imagining of the story of the cocaine bear, we follow the fates of the smugglers trying to recover the contraband Eddie (Ehrenreich) and Daveed (Jackson Jr.) send by their kingpin boss Syd (Liotta). The cops sniff out the potential for ditched narcotics in the forest, and officer Bob (Whitlock) heads to the forest to check it out. A nurse, Sari (Russell) tells her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) that they won’t be able to paint the waterfalls in the forest, but a rebellious Dee Dee ignores her and takes her best friend Henry (Christian Convery) with her to go to the falls. Sari enlists the Chattahoochee Park Ranger, Liz (Martindale) and the local wildlife expert Peter (Ferguson) to help her find the kids.
And guess what? They all end up encountering a coked up bear in the woods. As will a bevy of other characters. And, as we all know, cocaine will make you more aggressive, make you feel invincible, and make you want more of the white stuff. That bear has motivation! And, you will find yourself rooting for the bear. You probably knew that going in.
This is Elizabeth Bank’s first horror directorial effort, and she shows great instincts for how to craft a great action horror sequence. It seems that her experience working with James Gunn in Slither and Brightburn have paid dividends. The timing of the comic beats consistently hit, and when called for, the big horror action set pieces are spectacular. You will remember the tree climbing sequence and the ambulance sequence forever.
“Cokie” the bear is performed by Allan Henry, a veteran mo-cap performer who had done previous mo-cap stunt work in The Jungle Book, The Hobbit, and Planet of the Apes wearing a bear suit with stilts and as IndieWire describes, created a convincing animated bear. I was wondering if there were any trained bears used in the film, but nope… just one really good bear performer and digital magic. Pretty impressive. No bears were high for the creation of this movie.
Because the movie had so many characters, most of them don’t have much depth to them, some of them being reduced to one trick (or one joke) ponies. But the performances for what they are give is solid. And, this is a lighter fare film, meant to be a fun romp, and that is what it is. Also, is it wrong to want the kids to get mauled by the bear? Maybe? Guilty as charged. Also, some viewers will cringe at the casualness that cocaine is presented with, but I would doubt that anyone with ’80s level drug aversions will be the target audience for this. Word is with the initial success ($52 million in two weeks, on a $35 million budget, which is a pretty big risk given the nature of this film) you can expect the copycat coke horror movies to go into production. Regrettable, but inevitable, I suppose.
Cocaine Bear is currently in wide release in Theaters, and given that I was in a nearly full matinee showing, it may be in the cinemas for a few more weeks, Though it is likely also to hit streaming in a couple weeks since Universal has a 17 day streaming release window. It is rated R for copious use of narcotics (by a bear, mostly), lots of profanity, and some pretty grisly violent sequences. (Yay!)
Review by Eric Li