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Cocaine Bear (2023)

I just saw Cocaine Bear and it was okay. It moved very slowly for far too much of its first act and never quite develops the pace that a film like this needs, but it has a couple of great set pieces and amusing performances, and is overall a relatively slick piece of work for the genre that it’s in. It’s basically a slasher film with a bear instead of a man in a mask, which isn’t a bad choice given that it’s set in the ‘80s, but it distinguishes it from classic “animal attack” movies in its lack of realistic natural detail. (Of course, Sharknado is an “animal attack” movie and Cocaine Bear is certainly slicker than that. Come to think of it, the genre may be one of the junkiest around, outside the original Jaws and Jurassic Park…) There were even a couple of shots that reminded me of false alarms in movies like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

I was surprised when researching the film to find that it was directed by Elizabeth Banks. Normally when an A-list actress moves into directing you expect her to take on more arthouse projects, like Angelina Jolie with By the Sea and First They Killed My Father. Or at least a classier and less pulpy type of suspense than a concept like Cocaine Bear, which describes itself as based on true events but was derived from a post on Reddit (seriously) speculating about a true event from the ‘80s, where a drug runner died when he became tangled in his parachute and a bear found some of his cocaine before eating it and dying horribly over the course of an hour. (Admittedly, the true event wouldn’t make a fun movie.)

Still, Banks directs it as well as or better than any grizzled middle-aged junk merchant called Marty G Walnuts III would have, though perhaps not with quite as much gonzo elan. I assumed that this was her debut, but she’s also made Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels. Proving the important feminist point that women can also make exploitation trash, I guess.

The best non-bear parts of the film involved two kids and one of their mums and the late Ray Liotta, underused as a drug runner who both looks and sounds the most authentically 1980s of anyone in this film, right down to his yellow-tinted specs, brown leather jacket, and toothpick-chewing sleaziness. (I don’t know if he ever does chew a toothpick, but he seems like that kinda guy, y’know?) He looks, in fact, like the kind of guy who’d normally be directing a film called Cocaine Bear.

Banks is very good at directing children, which can be a painfully rare thing in movies, and gets an excellent comedic performance in particular out of the little boy in the film. He was possibly my favourite of the human characters, and I NEVER say that about kids in movies. The little girl was good too, and there’s a well-observed scene where the two of them find a packet of cocaine and the boy tries to impress her by claiming to be a seasoned user. It feels like how kids in that situation would behave and is a pretty funny comment on the ineffectuality of Just Say No programmes of the 1980s (some of which are shown in the opening, including Pee Wee Herman helpfully advising that crack is not “fun, or cool, or kid’s stuff”). I also liked the mother character, although she makes some… questionable decisions.

The film doesn’t rise above a certain level due to some annoying directorial choices and a lot of subplot material that no one could conceivably care much about and should have been jettisoned like coke from a jet. There are occasional flashbacks and windows into characters’ thoughts that are completely useless flourishes. One of them seems to have been added on the thinking that the audience is idiots and won’t remember something that they saw five minutes ago. Another one doesn’t make logical sense and is just kind of mean without a point, as one character imagines people in poses representing their fates, which he isn’t aware of. (You’d have to see it to understand.) Yet another seems to have been added because the director couldn’t figure out how to fit that part of the story into the linear sequence.

Meanwhile, subplots involving a park ranger romancing a wildlife inspector and a police chief’s acquisition of a show dog fall flat as comedy (the former especially; the latter at least provides a cute doggy to coo over). There’s also a twist involving one character’s loyalties which is just so much nothing. The director needed to tell the writer that they’re making Cocaine Bear, not The Departed.

However, when the bear does get busy, the film can be riotously entertaining. Easily the best sequence in the film involves a literal ambulance chase that’s perfectly scored and staged. If the whole film was as gruesomely and blackly funny as that scene it would have been a weird kind of masterpiece.


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