A black bear is a vicious animal to meet in the wild, and generally one would find it sober. “Cocaine Bear” adapts a true story from the 1980s into a dark comedy action film, and an instant classic, by posing a simple question: What would happen if a bear ate cocaine?
Directed and produced by Elizabeth Banks, the film builds on a true historical event, when a drug smuggler pushed about 75 pounds of cocaine out of a moving plane in 1985. Those bricks sailed through the air, landing in Georgia and Tennessee. In the wilds of the South, a black bear happened upon a few grams and went to town.
The film and history diverge after the smuggler drops the cocaine. In reality, the smuggler parachuted after his cocaine and did not survive the fall. In the film, a lot more people die in much more cinematic fashion.
Along with the roar of a bear, the film opens with a spray of cocaine bursting along to “White Lines” by Duran Duran. Text crosses the screen, providing the solemn Wikipedia entry for “black bear” — while it is not known to directly attack humans, the safest way to escape an encounter is to attack it head on.
Finally, the camera pans to two Norwegian hikers honeymooning by backpacking through Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) enjoy the idyllic wonders of Georgia before coming across a black bear acting very strangely. First it scratches its back along trees, then it cuddles the trees, then it lewdly caresses the bark. Olaf and Elsa watch with rising horror through their camera before the bear locks eyes with its lens and charges.
This opening scene refreshingly presents the unique melding of comedy, horror and action consistent throughout “Cocaine Bear.” One of these backpackers is unable to escape the rampaging bear, dying the film’s first gory death. Limbs fly, blood sprays, terrified screams are howled.
Alone, this imagery would be daunting and not exactly laugh-invoking. However, Banks’ directorial prowess shines through, panning to the comically terrified faces of bystanders and those who watch the bear’s horrors. Jimmy Warden’s screenplay is also to be commended; quick one-liners and overarchingly incongruous conversations cut the film’s horrific edge with clever comedy.
Excellent examples of Warden’s writing can be found in the conversations of drug dealers Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich). Tasked by Eddie’s father Syd (Ray Liotta) to retrieve the cocaine from the forest, the duo could almost star in a classic buddy comedy.
Eddie’s wife recently passed away and he is distraught; Daveed attempts to cheer him up and fulfill Syd’s wishes by prodding him along with crude humor and games of Twenty Questions. The two are definitely dangerous — Daveed single-handedly crushes a gang of teenagers threatening him with a knife — yet Jackson Jr. and Ehrenreich’s theatrics cause viewers to cheer for them as they attempt to secure those bags of cocaine.
At times, the film’s pacing feels jumpy due to its decision to follow sets of characters independently. However, when the film’s primary characters briefly interact, they create exciting crossover moments that speed the story forward.
These independent storylines are at the heart of what makes “Cocaine Bear” loveable. You can’t help but fall in love with the cuss-heavy dynamic between middle schoolers Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) as they stumble along a block of cocaine and attempt to eat it. The blossoming romance between hilariously incompetent park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and gritty, unaware naturalist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) brings such intrigue that you want both to win in their gunfight against the bear.
Every member of the cast sparkles; its charisma as a unit is unbeatable. Even characters that get a simple 10-minute scene, like paramedics Beth (Kahyun Kim) and Tom (Scott Seiss), bring verve and energy to the screen.
“Cocaine Bear” is bursting with colorful characters, comically dangerous filmography and witty dialogue. Viewers will be unable to guess how each character will fight the bear, whether it’s with weapons, words or using its addiction for cocaine against it. The film is just as addictive and adrenaline-inducing as cocaine itself, and audiences will love the high.