“Cocaine Bear” is the kind of comedy that doesn’t require many frames of reference. After all, everything one needs to know about it is right there in the title. Loosely based on a true story, the Elizabeth Banks-directed brings an oddball group of drug runners, a crime lord, two cops, two kids, a park ranger, and a single mother together in one mad game of survival of the fittest against an apex predator who is high on blow.
At a tight, breezy hour and 35 minutes, “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t need to do too much to deliver exposition. The premise of the film centers on the idea that all of these groups are converging at this one point while a bear, which is high on cocaine, is on the loose, killing everything in its path. Unaware that this one bear is bringing them together, this part slasher, part survival of the fittest, part don’t ever do drugs story, knows what it is and embraces the absurdity of everything happening.
One subplot finds Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) trying to help a grieving friend, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who lost his wife to cancer. The chemistry between the two makes for a great buddy comedy without either having to do the titular drugs. Both point out each other character’s flaws during some funny situations and support each other during some of the more emotionally driven moments. This leads to hilarious injuries and crazy moments with the titular bear, some of which have already been revealed in the trailer. The two work for Syd (Ray Liotta), Eddie’s father. Tired of Eddie dropping his son off with him and treating him like a daddy daycare, Syd’s anger and frustration grow when the two cannot do their jobs. Liotta is wholly committed to the bit of playing an 80s drug smuggler with his wild hair and flashy sense of style and someone who is fed up with his son being unable to do what he believes is a straightforward job. And then there’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Bob. Like Liotta, Whitlock Jr. plays up the role of a hardened cop who has been trying to arrest Syd for his entire career.
Meanwhile, there’s Sari (Keri Russell), a single mother who is determined to find her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her best friend Henry (Christian Convery), who are lost in the woods while a bear who is high on drugs is on the loose. So the two kids ditch school so that they can go paint a waterfall. Along the way, they discover one of the cocaine bricks, which inevitably leads to a hilarious cautionary tale about doing drugs and why kids need to stay in school.
Though James Warden’s script can be uneven sometimes, it’s a very good high when the comedy hits. But when it hits those setups for the next bit, the film starts to feel like a withdrawal phase. Luckily, Warden put a slasher film twist on the comedy by treating its titular bear as the killer force of nature hooked on the highly addictive drug. With an insane title like “Cocaine Bear,” it would be wrong to shy away from the insane absurdity and the excessive violence that comes from the crazy idea of a bear doing drugs. Instead, it’s designed to be reminiscent of the B-rated comedy of the past, where it is less reliant on a cohesive story – and a polished CGI bear – and more concerned with making the bear the killer in the forest everyone is trying to run away from.
Much of the film works better in vignettes than in a single narrative arc. There’s far too much going on at once to make sense of what’s going on beyond the bear. Other more minor subplots are necessary to help give more reason to show what happens when one comes across a bear getting high. These other subplots include a no-nonsense ranger (Margo Martindale) who has her heart set out on a love interest (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and is devoted to protecting the park from a trio of troublemakers.
Sure, “Cocaine Bear” is a lot about a bear mauling its victims and spilling their guts out in over-the-top and zany ways, but there is more to it than that. Banks can turn this B-rated horror comedy about a bear mauling its victims and spilling their intestines into something unexpectedly heartfelt. Sure the blood and guts it leaves behind in the wake cross white lines, but Banks takes those moments and elevates them with comedy and some tender family moments. And yet, it never forgets that it is a horror comedy about a coked-up bear. Many of the scenes find the bear, brought to life by cutting-edge WETA technology and motion capture artist Allan Henry, consuming the drug in hilarious ways, whether that means he eats a brick, breathes in cocaine snowfall, or snorts it off one of his victims.
“Cocaine Bear” is wild and very out there, for sure. And that’s the point. Even though it can be uneven at times, it knows what it is, doesn’t shy from its absurd premise, and dares to double down on the insane campiness. And then there are those committed performances and wonderful 80s needle drops. What’s more, the horror comedy is the kind of “don’t do drugs” PSAs I wish I had gotten as a kid. It certainly has a deadlier bite to it than McGruff the Crime Dog.