The story writes itself. A drug smuggler found dead in a Knoxville, Tennessee, driveway back in 1985, with a failed parachute and a large duffel bag of cocaine by his side. A black bear found months later, also dead (“Nothing left but bones and a big hide,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would tell the press at the time), among 40 opened containers bearing traces of cocaine and another empty duffel bag. The bear had apparently OD’ed on some of the cocaine — this became the story.
Only there was far less of the drug in the dead bear’s system than would have been available in those empty containers. Someone must have gotten to it. “You can’t make this shit up” is practically its own genre, and it’s the genre to which Elizabeth Banks’s Cocaine Bear proudly belongs. Sure, the movie — which is a gift to stoners everywhere — embellishes quite a lot of the original story, adding gore and hilarity wherever it can, making up excuses to give Ray Liotta, Margo Martindale, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. guns and cute comic bits, and to have kids and bear cubs snort coke for laughs, and to show bodies getting eviscerated by a coke-fiending, indiscriminately violent wild animal. You needn’t really add much to the premise to make it work. There’s a bear high on cocaine: roll camera.
Cocaine Bear’s felt like a cult-classic fetish object in the making since the release of its first trailer, maybe because schlock hits a little differently in a market crowded with IP that’s been brand-managed half to death. Sometimes you just want to see a bear snort coke and scoop peoples’ guts out, with nary a world to be built or an origin to be storied. Said movie should also, preferably, be funny. Cocaine Bear delights in being stupid. It isn’t always funny — some of its recurring bits never take off and others flame out — but it’s appreciably stupid.
Keri Russell plays Sari, whose daughter (Brooklynn Prince) heads into the Georgia hills with a friend and goes missing, having wandered into coke-bear territory unknowingly. Sari pursues her kid while a pair of crooks, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. and a weepie, recently divorced Alden Ehrenreich, try to hunt down the scatterings of cocaine in the woods; their boss, Ray Liotta, has a lot on the line with that payload. Isaiah Whitlock Jr. is the cop on the tail of the crooks. Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson play a park ranger and an animal activist, respectively, making their rounds through woods, or trying to, but for the sudden bear attacks. There’s a roving tribe of geekwad troublemakers, too, and more cops, ill-fated EMTs — the cast is oddly expansive, flipping back and forth to drum up suspense, not so much over the question of who the bear will fuck up, but how disgusting it would be.
The best thing about Cocaine Bear is its R-rating. None of this PG-13 M3GAN stuff: We’re hear to see a man get disemboweled, bottoms up, while suspended high up a tree. The pleasure’s in the crass, goopy excitement of it. It’s kind of a put-on — there’s something off about movies with bustling, name-brand casts and healthy budgets cosplaying as genuine B-movie fare — but the movie gets by on being surprisingly blood-soaked where it counts. The CGI bear is something of a mess at times, hyperreal and cartoonish by turns. But this only really helps the movie’s point. It brandishes its inconsistent quality like a badge of honor. It knows what it’s doing when it mixes Keri Russell’s sincerity with Margo Martindale getting bear-scratched across the ass. The trio of veteran character actors (Whitlock, Martindale, the late Liotta) keep the movie on its feet by being just the right amount of reckless, which saves some of the other supporting roles from spinning their wheels for too long. There are movies that were never going to be good, no matter the effort, and then there are movies that decide upfront to be bad and have a much easier time asking us to go with it. Cocaine Bear is the latter. It gives us what we’re asking for. Turns out, that isn’t much.