Cocaine Bear is a film worthy of its title, and perfectly constructed to feel like the kind of cult horror movie you’d find on a dusty VHS tape somewhere in a stoner’s basement. It’s bloody and grotesque, at times quite dark, but also surprisingly endearing. Any worry that actor and filmmaker Elizabeth Banks’s third feature wouldn’t live up to its gloriously stupid title is misplaced.
The fact that Cocaine Bear is based on a true story isn’t particularly relevant beyond its initial hook. The real Cocaine Bear – a dead 175-pound male nicknamed Pablo Eskobear – was discovered in the Chattahoochee National Forest during the mid-Eighties. His body was surrounded by 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine, supposedly tossed from a plane by convicted smuggler Andrew Thornton. Thornton had attempted to parachute down to Earth with his spoils, only to die in the attempt – his body was later found in a neighbourhood driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. The bear, meanwhile, had dined on Thornton’s coke, absorbing three or four grams into its bloodstream and dying roughly 20 minutes later.
The Cocaine Bear of Cocaine Bear, obviously, does not die 20 minutes into Cocaine Bear. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden has instead found a way to milk the joke without necessarily disrespecting the real animal at the centre of its story. Here, the bear is transformed into nature’s own avenging angel, who tears human beings apart as one might drunkenly demolish a McNuggets Sharebox after a night out. Cocaine Bear, who is here a Ms Cocaine Bear, is really the heroine of our story. She’s Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo for the age of internet memes.
But, as is somewhat necessary for the functioning of a good slasher flick, our potential human victims aren’t presented as mere bodies for slaughter. Banks has put together a strong ensemble of well-sketched characters all propelled towards a central meeting spot – that meeting spot being a bear on cocaine. Sari (Keri Russell) is in search of her missing daughter (Brooklynn Prince), who’s skipped school to go rambling in the woods. The local park ranger (Margo Martindale) and attendant wildlife inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are chasing reports of some unknown calamity. A police chief (Isiah Whitlock Jr) is attempting to hunt down the missing cocaine. And last, but not least, notorious gangster Syd Dentwood (the late Ray Liotta, who died last year), has sent out his morose, grieving son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and associate Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr) to also retrieve the missing goods.
These characters are funny, but they aren’t walking punchlines. Ehrenreich, as a guy who simply doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with a bear on cocaine, has both the best lines and the best delivery. As for Liotta, there’s something oddly sweet about one of his final roles being such a clear tribute to his Henry Hill in Goodfellas. He delivers the pastiche with such joy.
There’s a delicate but largely invisible balancing act at work in Cocaine Bear. For every risqué joke, there’s a touch of sincerity. For every splattery CGI effect, there’s the vintage Eighties glory of Russell’s hot pink windbreaker jumpsuit (Tiziana Corvisieri’s costumes are impeccable) or Cliff Martinez’s aggressive synths. When Banks’s second film as a director, the 2019 remake of Charlie’s Angels, tanked at the box office, she had to deal with the queasy uncertainty of whether she’d be given another shot behind the camera – the kind Hollywood’s white men have been provided with in almost infinite quantity. Think of Cocaine Bear as Banks’s own revenge story, then. When the world knocks you down, bite back. And bite back hard.
Dir: Elizabeth Banks. Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta. 15, 95 minutes.
‘Cocaine Bear’ is in cinemas from 24 February