- Solid gore
- Effective chills and thrills
- Bad jokes
- Wasted talented cast
- Unfunny over-the-top humor
- Would work better as horror than comedy
Solid gore and thrills aside, Elizabeth Banks’ unfortunate horror-comedy “Cocaine Bear” may be the biggest disappointment of 2023 (so far).
Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine, and the black bear that ate it, this wild dark comedy finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest where a 500- pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood.
A black bear ingests cocaine. Drug dealers, a worried mother and a camp ranger all try to evade the coked-up apex predator. Sounds like the horror comedy of the year, right? What could go wrong? “Cocaine Bear” begins with a coked-up dealer (a terrific, funny cameo by “The Americans” favorite Matthew Rhys) throwing multiple duffel bags of cocaine out the window of a plane. Unfortunately, this was not the correct method of delivering the product. Cut to a bright sunny day where we come across a cute hiking couple, Olaf and Elsa (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra), who violently cross paths with the coked-up violent bear and kick off our crazy, unfortunate tale. The players involved: Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), a trusted fixer that is tasked by drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final film roles) to grab his depressed son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and retrieve the fallen duffel bags of cocaine; Sari (Keri Russell), a gutsy, skilled nurse that is dedicated to finding her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) who picked the wrong day to play hooky; local detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr) who is looking into the location of the missing duffel bags; and Park Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) who teams up with her secret crush, animal-rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), to investigate what chaos is occurring in their park.
“Cocaine Bear” has all the winning elements of a great campy horror comedy. If only the comedy matched the same energy of its horror, or simply, if only the comedy was funny. “Bear” suffers from a severe identity crisis: when it operates as a straight horror film, it’s chillingly effective; when it tries to operate as a comedy, it’s a dull, shamelessly low-brow affair. Characters have sudden cutaways to (I really don’t know…visions? Dreams? Fantasies?) “pleasant thoughts” in their minds that interrupt the action and are played for comedic effect but ultimately come off as unnecessary. Children curse and ingest cocaine for forced moments of laughter but the moments are nothing more than a result of lazy comedic writing. A note to all comedy writers and directors: having a kid say “fuck” or “holy shitballs” or some other generic shit like that is only funny if there’s a substantial joke behind it. Having a kid curse just to curse does not automatically garnish a huge laugh (having that same kid ingest cocaine for the hell of it would, I assume, not garnish the same response either). Christian Convery (poor kid) gives it all he’s got and gives it well for the role of well-meaning troublemaker Henry but the unfunny material just fails to meet the immense charm he has in the role. Same for Brooklynn Prince, after entertaining critics and audiences with her breakthrough performance in “The Florida Project,” it’s a shame that a film like this doesn’t give her much to work with in the role of Dee Dee. Same for…mostly everyone else in this movie. This film mostly fails this whole cast when it comes to its hand at comedy (more on that later).
When director Elizabeth Banks plays “Cocaine Bear” for straight horror, it’s a visceral, edge-of-your-seat experience. The kills are exceptionally gory, the jump scares are nicely timed and the chase scenes are adrenaline-filled. This “half” of the film makes me excited for any possible future horror films or thrillers Banks decides to spearhead. “Bear” could carry itself as a way better film if it presented itself as a straight horror film with comedic elements than overwork itself as being an equal “horror-comedy”. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden said in a Variety interview that what happens in this film is a “product of circumstance and everybody else’s poor decisions.” I believe a timeless storytelling springboard like that could have been better utilized in a straight horror film rather than a film that claims one half of it to be something it isn’t – a comedy. The writing of this film would be better suited carrying the energy of a film like 2022’s “Barbarian” (a horror film that has funny moments) rather than trying to carry the energy of a camp classic like “Snakes on a Plane” (a way funnier film). In other words, this film should have stayed in its lane of horror and the audience (along with its ill-fated stars) would have been way better off for it.
Then there’s the talented cast – the worst victims of all in this tragic tale. Having a talented cast like this and criminally underutilizing them with a disjointed story and unmemorable jokes could make “Cocaine Bear” the biggest disappointment of 2023 (so far). The pairing of O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich as estranged friends Daveed and Eddie could have paved the way for some great comedic chemistry. Instead, what the audience receives is generic rapport: bland wisecracks and par-the-course annoyance. Isiah Whitlock Jr and Margo Martindale, always a delight to see on screen, try their best to deliver great supporting work but unfortunately their commendable efforts are dulled by the unnecessary “comedic” noise of the plot. Keri Russell does what she can and has a likable presence in the role of Sari, but in the end her character is unmemorable. Ray Liotta, the only cast member with a role in line with the film’s better “horror” half, shines as Syd. He proves his character to be worthy to the plot as the film leans more into its thriller components (it still TRIES to be funny in its third act but not as annoyingly as the first two-thirds). An underrated standout on the comedy side, however, is Aaron Holliday who plays Stache, a member of a hooligan trio known as The Duchamps. Holliday matches the same energy as Christian Convey in the role of Henry, the only difference being that some of Stache’s dialogue is actually funny (or chuckle worthy) and Henry’s dialogue mostly misses the mark…as does most of this film.
A killer 80s soundtrack, solid gore and a terrific cast is not enough to save the unfortunate “Cocaine Bear.” A film with so much potential should have played it safe and leaned more into its horror elements than its comedic elements. Elizabeth Banks shows promise as a future horror director but this film will probably not be a shining star in the comedic side of her filmography. This honestly could have been the heir apparent to campy horror classics like “Snakes on a Plane” or (setting the bar low) “Sharknado” but due to bad jokes, forced humor and forgettable characters, this film unfortunately missed its mark and its intrigue.