Movie Review: Be (somewhat) amused and beware of the “Cocaine Bear”

My stars and garters, I lost COUNT of the number of times I muttered “They did NOT just go THERE” while watching “Cocaine Bear.”

I haven’t seen this many cocaine jokes since “Saturday Night Live” in the ’80s. And the gore. The GORE. Entrance and exit wounds, a disemboweling, maulings and clawings — early Eli Roth bloody.

It’s “Snakes on a Plane” with a bear. No Samuel L. Jackson, alas. And lots and lots of cocaine.

A hyper, just-addicted short-attention-span mama bear, bear cubs caked in “booger sugar,” children taking big, fat heaping spoonfuls? Heavens!

Comic actress turned comic director (“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Charlie’s Angels”) Elizabeth Banks and the screenwriter serve up a wildly fictionalized splatter comedy based on a real-life Tennessee tale from the mid-80s. And say what you want about the piddling dialogue and middling script, if the horror and coke joke audience was bigger, this bear would mop the bloodstained floor with that Ant-Man. Whatever its actual merits, this beast fills the cheap seats

A jaunty, jokey, life-is-cheap tone is set up in the opening, a montage of TV news coverage of the day (Tom Brokaw‘s finest hour) and the sight of a lummox drug trafficker (Matthew Rhys) dancing and snorting and tossing duffel after duffel stuffed with coke-cakes out of an auto-pilot prop plane, then clumsily killing himself when he bails out over The Smokeys in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Ray Liotta, in what won’t turn out to have been his final film (pity), plays a Missouri drug dealer who wants to get his ditched cargo back. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and “Solo” exiled Alden Ehrenreich are the subordinates he sends into the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area to retrieve it.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a Tennessee cop out to catch the elusive Syd (Liotta) and his minions.

But others, from local snatch-and-grab hoodlums, to kids playing hooky from school (Brooklynn Prince of “The Florida Project,” and Christian Convery) stumble across the duffels, the wrapped coke cakes or the bear that got to at least some of the cocaine first.

“It’s demented…or something!” Or something it is!

Hapless hikers, embittered park ranger (Margo Martindale), wildlife and biodiversity expert (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) or single mom (Keri Russell) hunting for her kid all find themselves chased by, contending with and/or ripped-up by this Ursa Americanus with a newfound taste for Erythoxylon coca.

“Cocaine Bear” summons up memories of the “cocaine” comedies of the ’80s — not films about the drug or drug dealing per se, but instantly-forgettable high concept comedies made under the influence kind of aimed at those under the influence.

The digital bear is…animated. For the most part.

The biggest running gag here is the title, especially the first word in it. Coke is a joke. F-bombs tart up other lines meant to be funnier. And then there’s the comic gore — stabbings, fingers shot off, teeth and claws tearing at flesh and intestines.

Attention is paid to the syrupy synth-pop music of the era, and the goofy, period-specific (often synthetic) clothing. That’s worth a grin or two.

But the Jimmy Warden screenplay needed script doctoring, a heaping helping of joke-juicing. Sight gags and gore may sell tickets. The wacky news story, covered-to-death by TV in its day, may ensure that the picture jumps right out of the gate in the opening act. There’s just not enough funny business here to keep this from flatlining pretty much from the halfway point onward.

Banks is one of the great screen comediennes of her era. As a director? Did you see “Pitch Perfect 2” or the last and least “Charlies Angels” ever? She gets the easiest laughs, manages a fright or two as we fear for children and other innocent victims of the bear. And that’s it.

The movie loses its buzz too early and drifts into a hangover of a third act thanks to blown opportunities, trite situations, weak set-ups and tame punch-lines.

It isn’t quite “Snakes on a Plane,” a high concept comedy in which ALL of the fun is in the title and the billing. But it’s too close.

Rating: R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout

Cast: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Alden Ehrenreich, Christian Convery, Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta

Credits: Directed by Elizabeth Banks, scripted by Jimmy Warden. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:35


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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