Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ fails to let its titular star shine

Juliana George, lifestyle editor

“The bear…it fucking did cocaine!” This one line, while a concise way to summarize an outlandish plot, was repeated at least 20 times throughout Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear.” Unsurprisingly, the screenplay left much to be desired. The Universal Pictures release hit theaters Feb. 24 and exceeded its projected box office numbers by more than $3 million, finishing second behind the latest Marvel blockbuster on opening weekend.

“Cocaine Bear” is very loosely based on the true story of a bear that ingested more than four grams of cocaine after a plane carrying over 300 pounds of the drug went down in 1985. However, aside from the initial premise, the film diverges from reality in every sense. The real “cocaine bear” died of an overdose shortly after consuming a lethal quantity, whereas its onscreen counterpart continued to devour increasingly implausible amounts of cocaine while terrorizing an expendable cast of characters in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia.

Anyone interested in seeing “Cocaine Bear” should have been well aware they would be expected to suspend their disbelief, but a historically accurate depiction of a bizarre historical event wasn’t what this film was selling — the trailer advertised a funny, fast-paced slasher with a unique monster and an intriguing hook. Unfortunately, it missed the mark. 

Three main storylines converge in “Cocaine Bear.” After the body of Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) is discovered in the wreckage of a cocaine-filled plane in Knoxville, Tennessee, local detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) heads to Chattahoochee in search of the rest of the cocaine. Simultaneously, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles) sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the coke. Nurse and single mother Sari (Keri Russell) follows her young daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to the forest after the school calls to report them absent. 

The slasher has a counterintuitively slow start, given its name and marketing. The bear makes a promising first appearance, attacking a Scandinavian tourist couple as its first victims, but then doesn’t turn up again until after the long, dragging expository introduction of the film’s unnecessarily robust roster of characters. The allure of the film obviously lies in its ridiculous titular star, and yet Banks perplexingly chooses to let the bear take a backseat to lackluster jokes and cliché story arcs. In “Cocaine Bear,” there is truly too much plot and not enough bear.

The main issue with the film is its inane screenplay, penned by Jimmy Warden. For a movie that was billed as both bloody and hilarious, practically all of its non-bear related jokes are unfunny and jejune. Most of the humor revolves around undermining the toughness of presumably hardened characters like drug dealers and cops by making them own froufrou puppies and play 20 questions with teenagers. Banks also made several incomprehensible directorial choices, like a random flashback to an event that took place 15 minutes earlier and a couple of cutaway scenes used to illustrate sitcom-esque punch ups. The trope-laden storylines were standard fare for the genre, but they took up a little too much undeserved screen time in a movie with one main draw.

The strongest scene in the film begins when paramedics arrive after receiving a frantic call from the park’s front lodge. By the time they realize the bear is in the lodge with them, it’s too late — and an epic chase scene ensues as the almost-rescuers attempt to escape the bear in an ambulance with a badly injured park ranger (Margo Martindale) in the back. If the entire movie had incorporated the nonstop action, wince-inducing gore and darkly humorous absurdity of that scene, “Cocaine Bear” would have delivered exactly what it promised. Tragically, the rest of the slasher falls short and, despite only being halfway through the movie, the ambulance chase ends up serving as an early climax to an action film without much action.

Ultimately, “Cocaine Bear” relies upon the novelty of its amusing premise rather than an original screenplay to get its laughs in — but then again, did anyone expect anything different?