Friday, February 24, 2023


Opening in theaters this weekend...

Cocaine Bear--This shocker has at least as much right to claim "true story" status for itself as Fargo or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There really was a Cocaine Bear: back in 1985, an American black bear was found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, just south of the Tennessee line. The poor creature had OD'd, having ingested more than 30 kilos of cocaine, valued at tens of millions of dollars.

The stuff had been dropped from an airplane by a smuggler who then died himself in a parachuting mishap. The unfortunate ursine, dubbed "Pablo Eskobear," was stuffed by a taxidermist and ended up on display in a shopping mall in Kentucky, where it reportedly still stands.

The movie, directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script by Jimmy Warden, is set in 1985 and uses some real place names and at least one real person's name (the smuggler's). But it's still a load of gleeful b.s., a highly entertaining sick joke. Unlike the real animal, the movie's bear--arguably the newest addition to the stable of Universal Monsters--turns into a drug-crazed spree killer, mauling and dismembering hikers and park personnel, as well as the drug traffickers that enter the forest in search of the lost product.

Cocaine Bear is as violent and gory as any big-studio movie you're likely to see. But it isn't scary, and isn't meant to be; the splatter is played entirely for gruesomely slapstick laughs. Indeed, the exuberance with which the blood and brains and guts fly is the central recurring and escalating gag.

Except for a single mom (Keri Russell), searching the woods for her daughter and the daughter's friend, most of the major characters are scoundrels or cretins or both, though not necessarily unlikable scoundrels and cretins. All of them are broadly played caricatures, so Banks invites us to leave our empathy at the door, take a cathartic break from compassion and hoot at the horrors which befall them. I indulged, and so did the audience with which I saw the film.

The title character, generated through some reasonably seamless combination of virtual and practical effects, has a guileless personality that contrasts with the bloody mayhem. Indeed, you're more likely to feel for the blameless beast than for most of the humans.

The cast is nonetheless excellent, even if most of them are not employing ten percent of their talent. I've long thought that Russell is one of the more underrated and underutilized lead actresses now in movies. I also don't understand why Alden Ehrenreich hasn't become a bigger deal; he's comically muddled yet sympathetic as an elaborately bereaved drug operative. So is O'Shea Jackson as his weary partner, Aaron Holliday as a dimwit would-be mugger they encounter, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as a cranky detective.

The film was one of the last in which the late Ray Liotta appeared. He's in his usual strong form as Ehrenreich's father, the heartless local boss of the drug dealers. It's not a rich enough role to be a worthy swansong, but it's a good performance, and the film is dedicated to him. The great Margo Martindale nails every line and facial expression as a hard-up park ranger trying to get the attention of a naturalist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Maybe the best of all are Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery as the two kids, who get across a genuine affection behind their mild, familiar ragging and posing and their dares of each other. They, along with Russell, offer us somebody to unambiguously root for.

Banks has a lot of fun evoking '80s-movie atmosphere, not only with the costumes and cars and posters and overheard pop songs but with her direction. From the full opening credit sequence to the leisurely camera movement to the driving synthesizer score by Mark Mothersbaugh, the film is as much a throwback to the decade in which it's set as last year's Top Gun: Maverick, and the response to both of those films suggests that maybe today's audiences wouldn't object to a return to that style.

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