Film Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is a Hilarious, Visually Stunning and Contemplative Social Commentary-Driven Horror Comedy

Film Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is a Hilarious, Visually Stunning and Contemplative Social Commentary-Driven Horror Comedy
© 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Making a major studio horror comedy film that was directed by and stars A-list talent with the equally outrageous and controversial title of Cocaine Bear can initially appear just to serve as easy bait to attract attention and sell tickets. But under the guidance of Emmy Award-nominated actress-turned-acclaimed helmer Elizabeth Banks, the movie ultimately proves to be a vital examination into the consequences of the flawed choices that humans make.

Written by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear is loosely inspired by the true story of the titular black bear that ingested millions of dollars of the eponymous drug in 1985. Banks, who also served as a producer on the comedy, proves with the screenwriter’s script that the bear should be seen as a corrupted innocent; it represents a reckoning for humanity’s exploitative abuse of the environment, and was a victim of people’s unethical actions.

Cocaine Bear follows Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys), a real-life former Kentucky narcotics officer turned drug smuggler, who throws packages of cocaine from the plane he was on after it malfunctioned. He then inadvertently plummetes to his death after he subsequently humped and his parachute failed.

© 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Real-life archival footage of the incident, including real newsreels and anti-drug commercials, is infused into the film’s narrative before the feature introduces the rest of its ensemble cast. After Thornton’s body is discovered, authorities huddle over his blanket-covered body, including Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a local detective, and rookie cop Reba (Ayoola Smart).

The duo inspect the scene and connect the drug dealer’s death to a broader drug operation run by a notorious kingpin, Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles), whom Bob has been pursuing for years.

Determined to catch Syd, the detective heads into Georgia’s Blood Mountain to find the abandoned cocaine. His pursuit seems plausible because after Syd hears about the plane crash, he enlists his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and trusted fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the lost drugs.

Meanwhile, Sari (Keri Russell), a recently divorced nurse, also ventures into the forest with the help of reluctant Ranger Liz (Margo Martindal). The mother is looking for her missing daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and the pre-teen’s best friend Henry (Christian Convery). The duo ditched school so she can paint a picture of a waterfall near Blood Mountain and use it to gain admittance to a prestigious art camp.

As the humans all contend with the recent obstacles in their lives, the fallout of Thornton’s death is most obviously seen through their interactions with the titular bear. The animal has consumed multiple packages of the cocaine the drug smuggler was transporting for Syd that was scattered across the forest. Despite the challenges and conflicts in all of their lives, the humans must learn how to work together in order to survive the drug-fueled bear’s relentlessly violent tendencies during his interactions with them.

© 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Banks and Warden crafted a story for the movie that’s driven by a captivating, intriguing blend of comedic and emotional moments. The ensemble cast of characters all passionately reflect on the conflicts in their lives – from Eddie wanting to break free from his father’s morally corrupt, illegal lifestyle to Bob wanting to capture Syd in order to validate his worth as a detective – while also playing into the absurd nature of their circumstances.

The characters are already contending with so many emotional obstacles in their normal lives that none of them are prepared to deal with a bear that’s high on cocaine. Sari and her daughter are truly standout, relatable characters in Cocaine Bear, whose relationship and life situation is comparable in many ways to Banks’ life.

Much like Dee Dee, the filmmaker was also 12 years old in 1985, the year in which the story takes place. While Dee Dee and her mother live in a small town in Georgia, Banks was raised in the small town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. So the helmer was able to shape the pre-teen character into wanting to embark on her own adventure with Henry in an effort to gain her independence.

But the young girl also still clings to wanting undivided attention from her recently divorced mom, who works long hours as a nurse to take care of her, while also balancing her relationship with her new boyfriend. Banks also incorporated her own recent experiences being the mother of two kids into Sari’s journey throughout the comedy.

Being the mom of a 12-year-old herself, the director related to Sari’s struggle of feeling disconnected from her child because they’re often choosing to spend time their friends over their parents. So Banks guided the Emmy Award-nominated Russell into highlighting Sari’s fraught rapport with Dee Dee.

The Golden Globe-winning actress effortlessly infused her character with emotional intelligence, strategic smarts and action hero abilities. While extremely worried about her daughter, Russell presents Sari as being relatable, grounded and level-headed as she sets out to find her daughter.

The engaging, diverse characters and the comedic moments they find themselves in throughout Cocaine Bear are combined with a stellar sense of suspense and gore. The film’s dynamic blend of characters and situations proves that in her third directorial effort, following the musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2 and the 2019 action comedy reboot of Charlie’s Angels, Banks can effortlessly mix comedy into other genres.

The filmmaker’s latest helming effort is a powerful tribute to the unique comedy movies that she admires from the 1970s and ’80s. In particular, Cocaine Bear stunningly captures the horror comedic tone, visual effects and action of the Evil Dead franchise.

The new horror comedy also thrives in the fact that it didn’t use real bears  throughout its production. Instead, Weta, the New Zealand-based special effects company that was founded by Peter Jackson and is renowned for its work on The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and The Planet of the Apes franchises, expertly crafted the titular animal.

© 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The company expertly created the photo-realistic, National Geographic nature documentary-quality bear that Banks envisioned for the film. The director and the company crafted the perfect bear that would relentlessly attack the human it encounters in the forest in the aftermath of it consuming the cocaine: a female sun bear, which is an omnivore that’s fond of trees and has excellent climbing skills.

The company also realistically crafted a bear with a stocky physique, sable fur, muscular limbs, curved paws with sharp claws and a short snout, which limits its ability to determine food that is safe for them to consume.

Veteran motion capture/stunt performer Allan Henry, who has appeared in such movies as The Jungle Book, Jumanji: The Next Level and Avengers: Endgame, perfectly brought the bear’s physique to the screen. His performance was most notable when the bear jumps from one tree to another during an action sequence in the forest while encountering Sari and Henry, as well as embracing Eddie in a tight embrace.

Banks and Warden crafted a story for Cocaine Bear that’s driven by an intriguing blend of comedic and emotional moments. The actors all passionately relate to the conflicts in their characters’ lives, while also balancing humorous jokes, brilliant stuntwork and vital social commentary while fighting back against the titular animal.

Cocaine Bear easily earns its place as a notable entry in the horror comedy subgenre. Its legacy will surely last as long as the genre’s iconic entries from the 1970s and ’80s.

Grade: B+

Cocaine Bear was released in theaters this weekend, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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