‘Cocaine Bear’ is a B-movie for the modern age

The Miscellany News.

A movie named “Cocaine Bear” is a forceful statement and a beguiling intrigue. The comic absurdity of the title begs us to ask: Does the bear do cocaine? How does it procure cocaine? Why does it do cocaine? The simple pairing of the two words on the marquee suggests humor and mystery; pathos and logos; and the extensive literary history of the tragic hero. The film mercifully relieves us from our crushing questions: yes, the bear in fact does do cocaine. The cocaine was dropped from a drug plane. And the bear, like all imperfect beings, cannot resist the insidious grasp of vice. 

According to IMDb, “Cocaine Bear” is Elizabeth Banks’ third feature-length directing effort after “Pitch Perfect 2” (2015) and the 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” reboot. The slender comedy-horror plot is set in the mid-’80s, incited when a drug smuggler accidentally drops duffel bags of cocaine from a plane over the rural mountains in Georgia. Our eponymous bear ingests an ungodly amount of the drug, and its trip spurs a bloodthirsty rampage. Caught in the crazed bear’s warpath are a Swedish tourist, emergency paramedics, law enforcement officers, drug traffickers (among whom is Ray Liotta in his final on-screen performance), a gang of teen miscreants and a pair of children pursued by one of their mothers. It’s no spoiler that many of this motley bunch don’t make it to the second reel

In an objective critique of technical craft, thematic weight and social impact, “Cocaine Bear” has less footing than polar bears on a melting iceberg. The narrative is often threadbare, a largely surface-level shocker whose title is arguably as funny as the film is enjoyable to watch. Despite that, I love this film precisely for its uneven qualities and embrace of genre, as “Cocaine Bear” follows the time-honored sensibilities of the monster movie and animal attack formula. The monster movie is a horror subgenre refreshing to see revived with the vivacity and bluster it deserves—from the silent terror of “Nosferatu” (1922), to the sophisticated queer thriller “Cat People” (1942). “A Quiet Place” (2018) has become the genre’s modern torchbearer with a science-fiction bent; monster movies are a staple in the film canon. These are subtly-complex films, using their defining monsters as allegories to reflect the cultural landscape of the film’s diegetic settings and real-life social context. The titular bear is both a lesson that human products should not interfere in the natural environment, as well as a metaphor for Ronald Reagan’s impotent War on Drugs, which NPR’s Brian Mann posits was a justification for rampant incarceration of Black communities. The film opens with a montage of infamous 80s anti-drug PSAs, their moralizing comically subverted and undermined by the crack-fueled mayhem to follow. On the opposite end of the thematic significance spectrum are animal attack movies, where a variety of non-fictional animals attack humans (e.g. pulpy Roger Corman-produced B-movies such as “Piranha” (1978) and “Attack of the Giant Leeches” (1959)). The phrase “Cocaine Bear” is a perfect pairing of these genres: “Bear” is the denotative killer animal in the animal attack genre, and “cocaine” is both the comic premise turning our otherwise peaceful animal to a monster as well as the connotative social commentary. 

“Cocaine Bear” paws through the genre context and fashions itself as a comedic monster movie that is very, very loosely adapted from the tale of an actual Kentucky black bear who, according to The New York Times, ingested a lethal 40 containers of cocaine fallen from a drug smuggling plane. It is worth noting that the real bear never killed anyone while tripping, a reality that “Cocaine Bear” flips to craft its homicidal ursine; the effect is glorious. Although there are only so many ways a bear can maul humans, Banks pushes past the bare necessities, devising creative scenarios and methods for Cocaine Bear to enact its furry wrath upon unsuspecting humans. The movie also has quite a convincing bear, rendered in beautiful CGI by the New Zealand-based special effects company Wētā FX, who, according to Hollywood Reporter, worked on this year’s Best Visual Effects Oscar winner, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Considering that “Cocaine Bear”’s genre forebears are notable for having terrible effects due to a shoestring budget, the visual fidelity of its hibernating Terminator is unexpected, but a welcome surprise. The movie was as scary as it was funny, much to my delight; I believe horror and comedy are two sides of the same emotion and work best paired with one another. 

Of course, the film could’ve used a few tweaks. Outside of Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery), who are brought to life by convincing, charismatic child acting roles, the performances are just alright. Also, the ’80s soundtrack only really clicks during the delightful pairing of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” with the bear’s killing spree, and the plot sometimes drags when we spend more time with the humans than the bear. Banks goes into great detail establishing disposable side characters who barely impact the plot, emulating a Coen Brothers-esque typecasting in character actors Margo Martindale and Kristofer Hivju, respectively playing a foppish park ranger and wistful fiancé whose screen time would’ve been better spent with more footage of the bear on cocaine. Thankfully, “Cocaine Bear”’s most powerful weapon is its brisk 95-minute runtime, an oasis from the rise of modern blockbuster runtimes that Stephen Follows identifies. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book,” although I believe he would’ve turned from nihilism had he seen “Cocaine Bear.”

“Cocaine Bear” is an often-triumphant celebration of equal parts quality and camp. It champions the venerable histories of cult filmmaking and the monster movie and animal attack subgenres through its status as an unexpected blockbuster clawing above its weight class, which outrageously made only 10 million dollars less than “Ant-Man 3” on both films’ opening weekend according to Variety. Industry shifts away from B-movie camp and Stephen Follows’ evidence of declining mid-budget filmmaking have threatened the extinction of “Cocaine Bear”’s financial niche, so to see it thrive commercially has been a wonderful underdog story. Is “Cocaine Bear” high art? While the bear might be high, the art isn’t. However, there was no expectation of high art, both in the film’s marketing and audience reception. All this movie needed to succeed was a bear on cocaine, and it went even further by doing justice to the B-movie—that is something worth celebrating.

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