A lot of the reviews I’ve seen for “Cocaine Bear” contain some variation on the line, “This movie delivers exactly what it promises.” I’m going to say that’s not entirely true. To be sure, there is a bear high on cocaine in this movie. Nobody is going to say that this movie delivers less than what it promises. What I mean is that this movie delivers slightly more than what it promises. Again, there is most definitely a bear on cocaine, no worries there, but there’s also a quirky little crime comedy in play under the much-ballyhooed layers of fur and coke.
The bear is on cocaine because a gang member dropped several pallets out of a plane while flying over the Georgia mountains. The movie never makes it clear why the cocaine was deposited like this, but drugs may have involved in the decision. A black bear got into the unattended stash, and is now going on a woodland killing spree. Sometimes the bear attacks because it’s hungry or because it’s aggressive, and there’s even a more noble reason introduced late in the film, but mostly it attacks because it wants more cocaine.
We meet our human players. Sari (Keri Russell) is a nurse looking for her hooky-playing daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Liz (Margo Martindale) is a park ranger with delusions of grandeur trying to impress a visiting wildlife expert (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a cop trying to find the rest of the cocaine while minding his new puppy. Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) are gang members trying to recover the cocaine for Eddie’s father Syd (the late Ray Liotta). Throw in some panicky paramedics, a bumbling trio of muggers and some hikers to serve as hors d’oeuvres, and you’ve got a menu – I mean – cast.
As expected, much of the film’s humor derives from the bear and its newfound affinity for cocaine. Sometimes its behavior is violent, other times it’s just odd, like when it goes around banging its head into trees. But it’s not always about the bear. Daveed and Eddie have a nice odd-couple chemistry with Daveed trying to be sensitive to Eddie’s grief over the recent death of his wife, but Eddie being such a stick in the mud and renouncing his former criminal ways. Dee Dee and Henry steal the movie with their misplaced rebelliousness and unfamiliarity with cocaine. And a showdown at a gazebo is twisted enough before the bear shows up to make everything worse.
I like that the move avoids the temptation to make the bear a straight-up villain like the shark in “Jaws.” The poor thing was minding its own business until cocaine fell from the sky. It didn’t ask for any of this. True, it attacks good guys and bad guys indiscriminately once it’s coked-up, but it seems like all it needs is a good nap and it’ll stop being such a grouchy-bear.
There’s a lot of fun to be had at “Cocaine Bear”: fun from the bear, fun from the humans, and fun from the audience if you see it with the right crowd. It loses some of its manic energy toward the end when the villains get serious, the humor dissipates, and the action takes place near a waterfall at night, which in movies is a shortcut for shoddy special effects. But until then, the movie takes full advantage of the goofiness of its premise. As long as you can take its staggering violence in stride, it’s as sweet as sugar - even if it is about a different kind of white powder.
“Cocaine Bear” is rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout. Its running time is 95 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.