Thursday, February 23, 2023

Cocaine Bear gets grisly in all the right ways

Drugs can make you do wild, unpredictable things. But even the wildest party animals in the 1980s could never imagine the kind of drug-fueled spree the titular critter of Cocaine Bear goes on. After a drug smuggler dumps bags of cocaine in a forest in Georgia, an American black bear ingests some of that coke and begins to go on a rampage in the area. As this happens, a slew of wildly different people  converge on the forest. Nurse Sari (Keri Russell) is heading to the forest to look for her daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Drug kingpin Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta), who has a vested interest in seeing the cocaine retrieved, sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and loyal cohort Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) to get the drugs back. These are just a few of the lives that are about crash right into the cocaine bear, who has an increased hankering for human flesh now that all the powder is in her system.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear delivered just what I wanted out of it. Running a nice 95 minutes with credits (what a relief to see that after Violent Night stretched its even thinner premise to 112 minutes), Cocaine Bear quickly gives viewers the grizzly carnage they want and keeps a steady supply of bear mayhem coming throughout the runtime. All the chaos is filled with just the sort of bloody deaths and dismembered limbs you'd crave from a film with this wackadoodle premise. Watching Itchy & Scratchy cartoons and reading Wikipedia plot summaries for Saw sequels and Meet the Feebles (which allowed me to imagine the movies being as vicious as I wanted them to be, MPAA restraints be damned!) as a child set up really high expectations for how violent "adult" movies could be. Cocaine Bear doesn't quite reach those lofty adolescent aspirations, but part of why I enjoyed it so much is it gets entertainingly close. 

A key reason the enterprise is so entertaining is that Warden's screenplay and the direction from Banks both keep the tone of Cocaine Bear nicely nuanced. Chunks of the movie are light and zippy and what a joy it is to see a modern comedy not rely on hackneyed improvisation to carry the day! Scripted gags relying on silly puns, well-timed pieces of body language, or visual juxtaposition are the name of the game here rather than the belabored off-the-cuff jokes of You People or The House. Not every gag lands, granted (some are undercut by some weird editing), but boy is it nice to have this kind of comedy back on the big screen again after so many years of yukfests helmed by Judd Apatow wannabes. The presence of actually funny gags and lines also has the added benefit of making the human-centric storylines more tolerable than, say, the human-focused segments of Pacific Rim: Uprising or Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Once the bear starts attacking, Cocaine Bear doesn't abandon all pretense of fun. All the chase scenes or maulings often have an element of dark comedy to them. But Banks ensures there's real weight to this critter's presence. When the bear stalks people trapped in a wildlife lodge, for instance, the sound of her booming footsteps actually inspires intimidation. The titular ursine isn't a cuddly creature who just escaped from Build-a-Bear Workshop, but rather something whose sheer might is apparent from the prologue of Cocaine Bear. This feature manages to make this creature a credible obstacle without making the humorous moments from the human characters feel like they're undercutting the tension. There's an undercurrent of darkness to all aspects of Cocaine Bear that keeps the project feeling cohesive. 

Of course, Cocaine Bear can't help but succumb to some key flaws that plague many creature features. Namely, our human protagonist just isn't as interesting as the main vicious animal. It's always good to see Keri Russell in something and the pink outfit she wears the whole movie is already a more distinctive character flourish than anything about, say, Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla. Suri's storyline, though, still isn't quite as interesting as watching a bear tear up bad people. There's also some awkwardly-incorporated ADR while the final half-hour struggles to juggle the many members of the ensemble cast. An abruptly-introduced supporting character's demise and the awkward exit of a separate antagonistic figure are the two clearest instances of the latter problem. Cocaine Bear knows how to handle drug-fueled wildlife, but it stumbles on the human element of its story.

Thankfully, the assortment of humans is portrayed by a murderer's row of talented comedians and character actors who lend some believable humanity to an utterly preposterous story. It's fun to see the likes of Ray Liotta and Margo Martindale, veterans of schlocky genre cinema (Martindale got her start as an actor in The Rocketeer, after all!) navigate this material with ease. Fresher faces like O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich also prove a hoot in performances hinging on their character's functioning as ordinary everymen who can't believe their lives are turning into a deranged Coen Brothers movie. Ehrenreich especially fares well as a lovelorn sad-sack who isn't much for brutal criminal actions, just the kind of contrast you need to play off a bear that'll rip you to shreds.

Cocaine Bear doesn't take as many risks visually or narratively as you might expect from a movie with such an audacious title. Most notably, audiences everywhere will be "shocked" that the human lead of a movie about a destructive CGI creature is a single parent who just wants to reconnect with their imperiled kid. Even with its shortcomings, the movie provides plenty of laughs and bear mayhem, it's just the kind of thing you'd want to watch with friends in a crowded theater. Perhaps I'm biased because this feature started with a lively needle drop that has to be a homage to one of the earliest acting credits from Elizabeth Banks, Wet Hot American Summer. But even beyond that delightful tip of the hat to the past, Cocaine Bear has enough violent charms to make it well worth sniffing out.

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