A film that is “Based on a true story” or, as it has been rewritten lately, “Inspired by true events”, can be a dicey prospect, usually portending some ponderous Oscar bait. As far as the “based on a true story” genre goes, Cocaine Bear is one of the more unique ones. Mostly because it jettisons realism for a madcap, splatter gore horror comedy. It gathers a bundle of different characters and puts them up against a cocaine fuelled killer bear. And there’s still some fun stuff when the bear isn’t tearing people to shreds as the script deftly juggles multiple characters, but whenever the cocaine bear shows up it is enjoyably nuts.
In the mid-80s, a drug smuggler dropped a lot of cocaine across the woods, and then immediately died afterwards. With dozens of bags of coke scattered across the woods, Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) tracks it down. Also watching the park is Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), and the drug dealer Syd (Ray Liotta) as he is in debt to even worse dealers. So, Syd sends his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), and goon Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve it. Two kids, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) are out for a jaunt in the woods, much to the concern of Dee Dee’s mother, Sari (Keri Russell). Unfortunately, a black bear is running around the woods, eating packets of cocaine, and tearing people apart. So as the coked-up bear thrashes everyone in sight, Syd is desperate to find his lost drugs.
There is definitely a cocaine bear in this film as this movie absolutely features truth in advertising. The essentials of the story are true, there was a drug dealer who dropped a bunch of coke from a plane in the woods, and a bear ate a lot of cocaine and then died. So technically “inspired by true events” is more accurate than most of the movies that say this. The addition of the bear going on a kill crazy coke fuelled rampage and the wacky cast of characters are fictional, and it makes it way funnier. The biggest star ends up being the cocaine bear, as things get crazy whenever it appears. Any sense of accuracy is discarded as the bear wants to kill and consume coke.
The CGI animation for the bear is well done, although the images of a bear eating cocaine is intentionally absurd. There’s even a moment where the bear ends up snorting floating cocaine which acts like Popeye eating spinach. At first it seems like a coincidence where the bear ended up swallowing a sack of coke and then went all screwy. But as the movie goes on, the bear is addicted to cocaine and sniffs out the packets. When Bob tries to distract the bear, he tosses out a bag of coke and the bear chases after it. There’s even a late reveal what the bear is doing with the cocaine back at its stash and it’s gleefully impossible. The kill scenes are very messy, especially one where a guy is stuck in a tree, mistakenly thinking that bears can’t climb trees, and the bear gets up there and chows down.
The movie is also a crime thriller with one of Ray Liotta’s last performances which is appropriate as he’s a sneering bad guy who has an incredibly memorable exit from the film. His Syd is trying to track down his coke and get his wimpy son to go along with it. Ehrenreich is such a constant sad sack that it becomes funny and his sense of disillusionment at the “family business” is palpable. He has some of the funniest moments and his exclamation that the bear did cocaine to his dad is hilarious. Daveed taking Eddie along for the ride is determined to find the stash of coke. Jackson Jr. has a funny showdown with some punk teen who menaced him in a bathroom, and there’s a darkly comedic moment as Eddie tries to keep Daveed from killing the teen out of irritation. The mixing in of crime thriller elements give it a different vibe in between the cocaine bear chaos.
The two little kids, DeeDee and Henry end up finding a stash of coke early on leading to a silly moment when the kids are pretending they know what drugs are, and Convery has some funny reactions as he thinks he’s ruined his life. Russell’s Sari tries to find her daughter after the kid goes missing from an encounter with the cocaine bear which draws Sari into conflict with the drug dealers. The park ranger played by Martindale is trying to show that she’s competent to handle a firearm which leads to some spatter misfires. There are more than a few misunderstandings here to keep the chaos going on, and a couple of decent plot twists. And whenever the bear shows up everything goes haywire.
Cocaine Bear is a lot funnier and smarter than expected. The fact that it goes full bore into loudly comedic gore gives it more pep than if it had been shaved down for a lower, potentially more money-making rating. It’s a crazy, coked out movie that takes “based on a true story” to a whole new level.
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Keri Russell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta