A mother, two children, drug dealers and local law enforcement are in a battle of survival against a coke-addicted bear in the latest film from Elizabeth Banks.
Over the course of her career, actress Elizabeth Banks has made a name for herself in genre circles for roles in The Hunger Games franchise and the raunchy comedies Wet Hot American Summer and Zack and Miri Make A Porno, as well as the horror films Slither and Brightburn. She took her experiences in those niches and applied them to directing Pitch Perfect 2 and the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, and does so once again in awesome fashion with her newest film, Cocaine Bear, which should establish her as a genre filmmaker for years to come thanks to its absurdist humor, hilarious dialogue, incredible gore effects and a cast game to do anything and everything in this blast of an action-horror-comedy.
Loosely based on actual events, Cocaine Bear takes place on a day in 1985, where after getting high on his own supply, a drug smuggler accidentally drops millions of dollars worth of cocaine from a plane flying over Knoxville, Tennessee, only for it to land in rural Georgia. There, a duffel bag full of the dangerous drug is discovered by a 500-pound black bear, who proceeds to ingest 35 pounds of it before venturing on the subsequent coke-fueled rampage through the wilderness it occupies as well as the poor bystanders that wander into its path.
The band of characters caught in the crosshairs of said monstrous bear are mother Sari (Keri Russell) looking for her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) after she’s ventured off with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to see a waterfall on Blood Mountain, fixers Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) trying to retrieve what cocaine they can for their crime boss, Eddie’s father Syd (the late, great Ray Liotta), a trio of ne’er-do-wells named ‘The Duchamps’ (played by Aaron Holiday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna), dog-loving police detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on the track of Syd and his underlings, and park ranger Liz (Margot Martindale) trying to romance an animal rights activist.
Elizabeth Banks is a very funny performer, and the sense of humor she employs here proves herself to be the perfect helmer for Cocaine Bear. From start to finish, the film is darkly hysterical for the absurd situations the characters find themselves in, such as a pivotal moment where Bob has Eddie and Daveed laying down at gunpoint only for the black bear to fall on top of Eddie for a brief nap, as well as an earlier scene where Henry and Dee Dee discover a package of cocaine and try to eat it like candy.
The dialogue of writer Jimmy Warden’s script is equally hilarious, whether it’s when Henry tries to prove his manhood to Dee Dee by saying he’s done cocaine many times with the lowest confidence for comedic effect, or when Liz tries to brush off her committing a horrific accident with an oblivious apology. It’s evident throughout Cocaine Bear that the actors in the film’s ensemble are having fun with the material, as their line deliveries land a bigger punch with pitch-perfect timing, such as an instance where Eddie reminds Syd of a mistake he made with deadpan anger after Syd calls out a character for her own negligence.
As director, Elizabeth Banks also contributes her vast knowledge of genre sensibilities toward bringing this chaotic tale from the eighties to life. Cocaine Bear constantly feels like a B-movie fit for the era in which it takes place, from Mark Mothersbaugh’s pulsing electronic score and eclectic soundtrack to the campy tone and method of handling its themes. Low-budget horror in the past always put its gory kills and crazy concept before everything else, so while its ideas about human connection and the differences between motherhood versus fatherhood are unfocused, it’s easy to appreciate the fact they’re present in a movie with a premise this wacky.
And yet, it’s when the movie tries to be dramatic that Cocaine Bear falters. The movie is so twistedly funny and paced so fast that the tonal shifts to a more terrifying beat in the narrative feel jarring. That is reflective of how we as humans experience life, granted, but in the experience of watching a film, it’s difficult to feel scared after a belly laugh over a snarky comment or cartoonish character death. What’s also worth noting is because the film’s emotional center is underdeveloped, the high stakes of the film’s climax don’t quite feel earned.
But Elizabeth Banks’ intention was to challenge the types of stories that female directors can tell through film, and Cocaine Bear exists as proof that she broke the proverbial barrier with flying colors. Those who can handle gore and tolerate the time it takes to set the main players into the bear’s drug-fueled pillage will be more than fascinated by the farcical circumstances each character stumbles into, laugh at the dialogue from every character, cringe in awe at all the twisted kills on display, and be entertained by the movie’s thrills from beginning to end. Make no mistake, Cocaine Bear is a bloody but hilarious contemporary piece of pure B-movie bliss.