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URSINE OF THE TIMES
Cocaine Bear (15)
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Screenplay: Jimmy Warden
Starring: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O'Shea Jackson Jr.
Review: David Stephens
Goofy animal horror used to be everywhere in the 70s and 80s. After Jaws we got bizarre offerings like Grizzly and Day of the Animals. Nowadays, it just seems to be the occasional high-concept approach like Snakes on a Plane or wilderness thrillers that invariably use big cats or big bears to generate scares. With that in mind, when people heard about the pre-production of Cocaine Bear, it basically created its own hype. As everybody in the Western world knows by now, its foundation comes from reality, which goes like this: black bear in 1985 Kentucky finds smuggled drugs – bear eats drugs – bear dies pretty quickly of heart failure. This is why the film is now no longer “based on a true story” but “inspired by true events”. Because in this version of the narrative, the furry critter gets addicted rather than demised. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, who made Pitch Perfect 2 and the ill-fated Charlie’s Angels reboot, it seems to have caught the attention of those cinemagoers desperate for something different and tempted by the wacky trailer. So we went down to the woods today…
It all starts with a (potentially accurate) depiction of the attempted smuggling racket, where a massive shipment of cocaine is dumped across Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Tennessee. Drug kingpin Syd White (Ray Liotta in his last role) is pissed that it’s been lost to the trees and eager to avoid the wrath of the cartel. So he sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and fixer Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr) to get as much back as possible. Also converging on the forest trails are worried mom Sari (Keri Russel), motivated cop Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr), and cranky Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale). All are unaware that a large Black Bear has already got a taste for the white stuff and is eager for more. It’s also making it behave in ways which are freakier than the average bear and extends to things more serious than a pick-a-nic basket…
In some pre-release interviews, Banks made a point of saying that she was a fan of gory movies and Evil Dead in particular, so she gets brownie points from us for that. She also said that she wanted to make the film “National Geographic”-accurate, so it’s best to take some of her comments with a pinch of salt, as her snarky humour is well-known. However, those expecting “Paddington 3: He’s Off His Tits” might well be surprised by much of the content here, especially after seeing the “White Lines” trailer. Because, along with some decent gore and humorous moments, there’s a surprising amount of tension and heart in some sequences. Sure we get CB getting googly-eyed at butterflies and rolling about in the dust, but we also get stalking in the forest, cabins under siege, and shock moments involving head explosions and evisceration.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that some sequences feel like they have been lifted from a Coen Brothers film or Tarantino production. The screenplay is of that kind of good quality. You do get a “dusty beaver” gag, but you also get jet-black humour involving gun wounds (“How did he shoot two fingers off with one bullet … when they’re not even next to each other!”). There’s also a grisly sequence involving a triple threat in an ambulance that is hilarious and wince-inducing at the same time. Depending on your expectations, this is either a great thing or a slight disappointment. It means that you are not getting a pure exploitation flick with the bear running around slashing at everybody for 95 minutes and occasionally gawping at the screen. Instead, you get some likeable (and unlikeable) characters being set up for CB confrontations, whilst establishing a little bit of background for each of them. So Sari is looking for her daughter after making her uncomfortable with her new boyfriend, whilst another character is mourning a loss, and a cop is disappointed by his effeminate dog from a rescue centre! It’s quite good character drawing and at least gives some unexpected depth to some of the proceedings.
It helps that it’s a good cast involved in the project. with Russel’s mom being thoroughly relatable and Ehrenreich being sympathetic, even when hilariously trapped under a sleeping bear. The film could have died a death as well if the CG bear had been too goofy or fake-looking. Thankfully, for about 90% of the time, it’s pretty much perfect. It does go a bit “Etch-A-Sketch” at times when it’s jumping or falling. Mostly though, it is excellent FX that looks good as you might hope and probably much better than people were expecting. You can’t help but be charmed by some of the aesthetics that Banks piles on to the narrative, such as Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” being played as the coke-addled fuzzball zooms down the road in pursuit of a vehicle with a potential drug cache.
The only real problem with all of this, as far as genre fans will be concerned, is that it’s potentially not as rip-roaring or as chaotic as they may be expecting it to be. There are unapologetically gory moments, although the bloodiest moment comes from a human source, CB is actually treated with some respect rather than be vilified as a “villain”. Sure it’s dangerous to people who encounter it, but there’s some sympathy being offered. In fact, believe it or not, the film actually secured a “Beary Best” Award from PETA for using no real animals and highlighting concern for animals. Despite this though, the film is genuinely entertaining, easy to watch, and contains some surprisingly good performances from the cast … as well as the CG bear. Refreshingly, it’s not a case of “so-bad-it’s-good”, more simply just “pretty good”. Sniff it out at the big screen while you can and before stuff like Attack of the Meth Gator (genuine Asylum mockbuster coming soon as if you couldn’t guess) sours the flavour of this sleeper hit.
Probably a victim of everyone’s expectations after the title and trailer, CB doesn’t quite live up to its raucous potential. That being said, it is still great fun and extremely well made, with a Coen Brothers vibe to certain sequences. Bear FX are mostly excellent and there’s no lacking of gore. It also has some surprising tension and LOL moments. Banks has a nose for this. More of the same, please!
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