REVIEW: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is a confused entanglement of characters, storylines and tones

Bradley Earnshaw, Staff Writer

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, common effects of cocaine are increased heartrate, euphoria and paranoia or confusion. While “Cocaine Bear” certainly provides thrills that will get the heart pumping, viewers will more commonly feel confused and paranoid.

Elizabeth Banks’ new film follows an unorthodox grouping of hikers, tourists and residents as they make their way through the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. An overweight plane hauling duffel bags of cocaine must unload over the forest before crashing to the ground. The titular bear comes across these bags and ingests the cocaine found inside. This sends the bear on a violent rampage, as it stops at nothing to obtain more of the powdery white drug. A mom looking for her lost daughter, two park workers doing a wildlife check, a pair of hikers, a police detective and three men trying to get their cocaine back are all confronted with one vital decision: should they run, or should they fight?

The stuffed ‘Cocaine Bear’ in Lexington, Kentucky. (Courtney Oldendorf/TODAY)

“Cocaine Bear” sets the tone from the very onset of the film. We first see the pilot of the plane dumping bag after bag of cocaine from the plane as alarms sound and lights flash. The ending of this scene explains how the pilot is later found dead on the ground in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it’s done in a very comedic way. There’s great buildup to the pilot jumping from the plane, but instead he hits his head on the doorway to create a “Three Stooges” style gag. This sets the tone of a darker “kill-comedy” style movie with over-the-top scenes of characters meeting their misfortunes.

Immediately, we see another important early scene of two hikers who we find out are nearing their wedding date. They’re taking in the beautiful mountains and woods of the forest when they come across a black bear scratching its head on a tree. The bear notices the couple and quickly attacks the woman. This scene is in great contrast to the airplane scene. The sound design heavily emphasizes the ambient noises of the woods while the bear is unaware of the couple. Those noises cut out as soon as the bear notices the couple and results in a jump-scare moment when the bear reappears out of the brush.

This contrast reveals the film’s largest flaw—it doesn’t have one continuous theme or message. There are often scenes of traditional slasher-style horror where the bear is attacking the characters. These scenes use the sound of branches snapping and bushes shaking to remain ridden with tension and anxiety as the audience waits in silence for the bear to attack. At the same time, the film tries to present a theme of “family matters over all” while dedicating little time to developing that message.

This conflict of tones is too distracting to dismiss. “Cocaine Bear” does well with both styles of storytelling, but it results in scenes where the viewer isn’t sure to laugh or be shocked when a character dies on-screen.

The titular bear in “Cocaine Bear,” a dark comedy about a bear that consumes a stash of cocaine. (Universal Pictures)

However, there is one scene that is a perfect blend of dark and comedic. About halfway through the film two medics arrive in an ambulance to take one of the characters to the hospital. The bear chases after them and disposes of everyone inside. While this is going on, a remix of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” plays. It is a fitting song title for the film, but also an upbeat 1980s tune that gives this gruesome scene its fun and comedic feeling. Had the film taken on this style of fun “kill-comedy,” it would have been a less confusing and conflicting watch.

As stated earlier, Elizabeth Banks’ direction is surprisingly strong in this film. Despite the tone of the action scenes, little is left to the imagination. In calmer moments, the framing and blocking of the actors, the bear and the environment give viewers a sense of what horrors can fill that void. When there are bear attacks on screen, Banks does not hold back on the violence. It’s fast-paced, bloody, gory and hard to watch, but impossible to look away from.

One common downfall of high intensity films like “Cocaine Bear” is that the editing is so fast that the viewers can’t tell what’s actually happening on screen. This is far from the case in “Cocaine Bear.” Banks and editor Joel Negron ensure that key shots are shown for just long enough so that the viewers can get the information that each shot presents while not boring the audience with long takes. The editing lends itself well to the film’s pacing.

Keri Russell’s character Sari in “Cocaine bear.” The dark comedy is loosely inspired by the unbelievable true story of an American black bear that consumed an abandoned duffle bag full of cocaine in 1985. (Universal Pictures)

When it comes to performances, there is not much to praise. Keri Russell is undoubtedly the star of the film as a mother looking for her daughter that got lost while running from the bear. Russell brings intensity and fear to her character and her portrayal comes across as realistic and grounded.

The two other standouts are onscreen partners Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Eddie and Daveed respectively. The two men are sent by Eddie’s dad to obtain the lost cocaine before Eddie’s dad must answer to the man the cocaine was being shipped to. Eddie is grieving from losing his wife, and Ehrenreich portrays the character with occasionally teary eyes and his head in his hands to drive home the sadness. Despite Ehrenreich’s strong performance, his character’s backstory doesn’t play a relevant role in the film. Jackson Jr.’s character is more goal-oriented than Eddie and this comes through in his performance. Jackson Jr’s facial expressions and tone of voice present an image of a short-tempered and authoritative figure that doesn’t like to mess around.

Eddie’s dad is played by Ray Liotta, who sadly passed away shortly after filming wrapped for “Cocaine Bear.” (Skip to the next paragraph to avoid a spoiler). Liotta’s character meets a gruesome, violent and gory ending near the end of the film. The first card after the film cuts to black says “In loving memory of Ray Liotta.” This choice seems off-color and inappropriate to dedicate a film to the legendary actor whose character meets the most graphic death of the film. This ends “Cocaine Bear” on a slightly sour note, instead of one where everyone goes their separate ways having survived this shared trauma.

“Cocaine Bear” spends so much time confused about which tone to take on that it lacks any real direction. This film had every chance to provide an over-the-top thrill ride that mimics the aforementioned effects of cocaine for viewers. Instead, it’s an hour and a half of back-and-forth scenes that leave the audience confused on whether to laugh or cry.