Back in 1980s, drug smugglers were regularly dropping plastic containers of cocaine into the woods of Tennessee where boots on the ground would retrieve the caches. On one such run in 1985, Andrew C. Thornton jumped from his plane near Knoxville, Tennessee, with a load of coke strapped to him. His parachute failed to open, however, and he crashed into the ground dying instantly. The rest of his cargo, meanwhile, landed in a Georgia forest where 75 pounds of it was eaten by a 175-pound black bear. Not surprisingly, the bear overdosed and died, and that bear, known today as Pablo Escobear, is a popular stuffed attraction at an entertainment mall in Lexington, Kentucky. Director Elizabeth Banks (CHARLIE’S ANGELS; PITCH PERFECT 2) uses that story as a starting point for her comedy about a bear that goes on a murderous rampage after ingesting copious amounts of the white powder.
In the aptly titled COCAINE BEAR, Sari (Keri Russell, ANTLERS; TV’s THE AMERICANS) is a nurse and single mom to pre-teen Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince). Due to Sari’s work schedule, she has to postpone her and Dee Dee’s hike in the nearby Chattahoochee National Forest, so Dee Dee skips school and takes her best friend, Henry (Christian Convery) with her to the forest instead. Meanwhile, forest ranger Liz (Margo Martindale, INSTANT FAMILY; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) is awaiting her love interest, animal rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, TV’s MODERN FAMILY), who is coming to see the animals in the wild. As for that cocaine, police detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr., I CARE A LOT; TV’s THE WIRE) gets word that the drugs may have landed in that forest so he, too, heads there to search for them. At the same time, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta, MARRIAGE STORY; GOODFELLAS) sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY) and fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr., STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) to find the drugs before anyone else does. All these characters and more end up coming face-to-face with a 500-pound black bear that’s higher than the Rocky Mountains.
On the whole, COCAINE BEAR delivers on its wacky premise but it’s a bumpy road that it travels. The jump scares all work and when it’s funny, which is usually when it’s at its most violent, it’s riotous. However, when it’s not, it’s deadly dull. Unfortunately, Banks fills out her cast with a few too many clownish characters, the most annoying being her MODERN FAMILY brother, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The buffoonery just wasn’t necessary and the film may have been more effective if everyone had played it straight. Thankfully, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking it at a fairly lean 95 minutes, though five minutes could have easily been chopped as some scenes – particularly the film’s climax – dragged.
Animal rights activists can take comfort that no bears were harmed during the film’s production which, interestingly enough, was shot in Ireland, not Georgia. The main bear (there are others) was CGI-rendered, and fabulously so, by WETA FX, the New Zealand company that was founded by Peter Jackson. Stuntman Allan Henry (BLACK WIDOW; AVENGERS: ENDGAME) donned a motion capture bear suit to record his movements. Though I’m not a bear expert, it’s quite convincing so kudos to Banks for showing that women can make CGI movies too.
COCAINE BEAR opened yesterday (March 3rd) in Hong Kong and opens today in North America. It’s uneven but it’s also delightfully stupid. Go see it.
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