.Getcha Paws Off It

Grisly, hilarious ‘Cocaine Bear’ has a nose for mischief

Cocaine Bear is a terrific movie title, the type of name on a marquee that will convince people to stand in line just to see what the hell it’s all about. Not quite in the same sphere as Snakes on a Plane, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands or Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks – but getting there. 

From the trailers we expect to see a rampaging, frothing, ferocious, 500-lb. hunk of furry meanness, made all the more frantic after ingesting too much nose candy. All of that is accurate. But the bonus in this electrifying, often hilarious thriller is that it doesn’t really need a cheap gimmick, other than the sight of a vicious bear chasing humans through the woods.

As directed by actor-turned filmmaker Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games series, Charlie’s Angels) from a screenplay by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), Cocaine Bear stands on its own two feet as one of the happiest surprises of this brave young year, a smartly written, excitingly directed, nicely cast piece of genre outrageousness.

As noted elsewhere, Banks and Warden’s film is based on a true event. In 1985, a drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton threw numerous plastic-bagged bricks of cocaine out of an airplane over the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest, in Georgia near the Tennessee state line. Evidently the load was too heavy for a parachute. Thornton’s body was reportedly found later in a Knoxville backyard, wearing a parachute and a pair of Gucci loafers. As for the blow, Georgia cops believe most of it was snarfed up by a wild black bear that died of an overdose soon afterwards. 

Pretty good story, but Cocaine Bear takes it to new heights of ridiculousness. 

The buzzed bear doesn’t merely chase any human in sight, she — that’s right, she’s a mean mama bear — tends to maul and tear victims into little pieces. And she can outrun any man or woman alive. Once she catches up with them, the violence is realistically graphic, bloodier and more unnerving than even Leonardo DiCaprio’s much-discussed ordeal in The Revenant. The special effects are of an exceedingly high quality. Slobber, gristle, snapping bones, hair-raising shrieks, etc. And also, a few well placed, unexpected moments of humor, always at the humans’ expense. 

As in most flicks involving crime, violent menace, police, remote outdoor locations and folks from the country, most of the characters are various degrees of stupid. (This is true for any budget level of production, from Tucker and Dale vs Evil to Deliverance.) Two naïve European tourists on a nature hike are the first to experience the fury of the hot fur, followed by a precocious preteen local girl named Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), her best friend (Christian Convery), an easily distracted park ranger (the estimable Margo Martindale, from Dead Man Walking, Million Dollar Baby and many others), a trio of punk-rock hooligans (remember, this is set in the 1980s), a St. Louis police detective on the trail of drug smugglers (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and some local uniformed types (Ayoola Smart, Kahyun Kim). The film’s main character is Dee Dee’s mother Sari (Keri Russell), who, in common with the behemoth, is all about protecting her young. 

However, the most conspicuous name in the cast is the late Ray Liotta, who died in May 2022 while on location for another movie. Cocaine Bear might be his final screen credit. Liotta’s character Syd is the chief bad guy, the drug lord who will do anything to get his coke back. In Syd, veteran crime pic aficionados may see echoes of one of Liotta’s finest performances, that of gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Henry Hill had his own cocaine jones, and the sight of him maniacally racing through his hectic day with bloodshot eyes and toot powder stuck to his face was scarier than any CGI beastie. Here’s to you, Ray.

In theaters

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition