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Cocaine Bear review: A B-movie about a drug-crazed bear

The action comedy ‘Cocaine Bear’, directed by Elizabeth Banks and featuring Ray Liotta in his final role, has “gonzo potential” but “loses momentum” and is “strangely timid”, writes Nicholas Barber.

In 1985, a US drug dealer threw 40 packages of cocaine out of a small private plane and down into the Tennessee/Georgia forest below. One of those packages was eaten by a black bear, which died of an overdose soon afterwards. If that weren’t enough of an indignity, the bear was stuffed and put on display in the Kentucky For Kentucky Fun Mall, which sounds like something Nicole Kidman’s character planned to do in the first Paddington film. It’s a tawdry tale of humanity’s selfish mistreatment of the natural world, but you can see how it might be the basis of a very different type of story: a raucous action comedy about an enormous fanged beast going on a drug-crazed rampage through a national park. And that’s what Cocaine Bear is – or what it tries to be, anyway.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, the film opens by introducing the dealer (Matthew Rhys), who is flying high in more ways than one. It isn’t entirely clear why he is getting rid of duffel bags whose contents are worth millions of dollars apiece, but it’s a rollicking sequence with a hilariously nasty twist ending. Then there’s a scene in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Park – an area called Blood Mountain, ominously – featuring a happily engaged pair of European hikers. “We have such good luck in nature,” coos one of them when she spots a Baloo lookalike in the distance. But she and her fiancé soon notice that the bear is “demented”, and they try desperately to make sense of the ursine code of conduct: “If it’s black, fight back. If it’s brown, lay down.”

Most viewers will wish that it was wittier, faster, and more willing to fulfil the gonzo potential of its in-your-face title

Once Banks has demonstrated that she is not afraid to kill off endearing characters in the most gleefully gory way, she moves on to a montage of 1980s anti-drugs adverts, which establishes the period setting, and suggests that she has some political satire in mind. At this stage, Cocaine Bear promises to be a guilty pleasure that is both deeply guilty and highly pleasurable. If only the rest of the film had kept that promise. After its deliciously sharp opening minutes, though, it loses its momentum. Clearly, Banks and Warden thought that having an apex predator lunging from the undergrowth and tearing people’s limbs off would give them enough meme-worthy moments for a viral trailer, and perhaps even for a cult hit. And they were probably right. The bear’s Jaws-like attacks make you jump and chuckle, despite some less-than-convincing CGI, and they happen just often enough to justify the film’s existence. But Banks and Warden don’t seem to know what to do in between those grisly – or grizzly – set pieces. In short, the bits with a bear in them are a lot better than the bits that don’t have a bear in them. And there are a lot more of the latter than the former.

Instead of showing us the moment when the title character discovered and ingested the drugs, the film keeps introducing more and more characters who could have been in the first draft of a Coen brothers script. A tough nurse (Keri Russell) is searching for her missing daughter (Brooklynn Prince) with the help of a forest ranger (Margo Martindale) and a conservationist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). A drug lord (Ray Liotta) wants his cocaine back. Two of his henchmen (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr) swap sub-Tarantino banter and play a game of 20 Questions. And a police detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr) worries that his new pet dog isn’t as masculine as the one he wanted.

As these characters wander around the park, they are almost funny enough to keep us interested, but their scenes still seem weirdly sluggish and redundant, because they don’t have much to do with the one character we want to know more about: the bear. Given the premise, the film could have made some provocative points about the environment, or cruelty to animals, or America’s war on drugs. Alternatively, it could have made no points whatsoever, and just been a helter-skelter, blood-and-guts exploitation movie in which a bunch of manic misfits are chomped to pieces. But what we actually get is strangely timid for a film called Cocaine Bear. Ironically, it doesn’t have much bite. Rather than focusing on being outrageous and entertaining, Banks and Warden focus on sappy musings about the importance of being a caring parent and a loyal friend. But if you pay to see a B-movie about a furry giant with a taste for class-A narcotics, why would you want to hear those?

It might be best to watch Cocaine Bear at home, where you can skip past the rambling sections and go straight to the laughs and screams. In the cinema, most viewers will wish that it was wittier, faster, and more willing to fulfil the gonzo potential of its in-your-face title. It’s definitely better than Banks’s last film, Charlie’s Angels, but you can’t help feeling that she has done the bear minimum.

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