In recent years I am finding scary movies less enjoyable, but I do love a dark comedy. COCAINE BEAR combines these two elements in a most surprising --- and entertaining --- way. “Inspired” by the true story of a drug runner’s plane crash in 1985, screenwriter Jimmy Warden has done a deep dive into the details surrounding this curious event and added several subplots of his own.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks who is a fan of horror and comedy in a movie, COCAINE BEAR takes the audience on a wild ride of terror --- and goof-ups --- in rural Ireland substituting for the Chattahoochee National Forest of Northern Georgia where the original story takes place. Drug runner Andrew Carter Thornton II (cameo by Matthew Rhys --- Keri Russell’s real-life husband), has dumped cocaine out of planes before, but this trip doesn’t go quite as planned.
After Thornton has thrown multiple duffle bags of cocaine over the forest from his Cessna, in Warden’s version he hits his head and falls from the plane without his chute opening. In the meantime, a rather large black bear finds one of the bags and consumes the contents. That pretty much sums up the true story part --- from there the rest is fiction --- the imaginings of Warden’s fertile mind.
Instead of a notorious drug lord, in COCAINE BEAR Thornton’s boss is more of a local guy in St. Louis named Syd (Ray Liotta). When Thornton fails to get in touch without telling Syd where he dropped the goods, Syd sends his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), his most trusted fixer, to find the cocaine in the woods.
By now, the cocaine-fueled bear is on a rampage. He’s already attacked an engaged couple from Norway, Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) and Olaf (Kristofer Hivju), who were hiking when they saw what they thought was a harmless bear. Next, two 12-year-olds, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), and her pal, Henry (Christian Convery), skip school so Dee Dee can paint a picture of the waterfall at Blood Mountain. Their encounter with the bear leaves Henry up a tree, while Dee Dee has disappeared.
Dee Dee’s mother, Sari (Keri Russell), who was at work as a nurse, finds out from the school that Dee Dee was a no-show, so now Sari is in the forest searching. She does manage to locate Henry in the tree, but together they must find Dee Dee before the crazed bear does.
In another part of the forest, Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and her crush, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson in a hilarious wig and get-up), an animal-rights activist, find themselves victims of an attempted robbery by a gang of punks known as the Duchamps. The three members, Stache (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J.B. Moore) and Ponytail (Leo Hanna), have been terrorizing tourists, but they’ve met their match in Liz --- and the bear.
And lastly, there is Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a local detective and his Maltese, Rosette (played by two different dogs named New York and Paris), who is determined to bring down Syd’s nefarious operation. When Bob feels compelled to go into the forest to track down these criminals and their cocaine, he leaves Rosette in the care of his most trusted cop, Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart).
COCAINE BEAR has a lot going on. And Cokey, the bear, is the main focus. Created by Weta, the New Zealand special effects company started by Peter Jackson, Banks was adamant that the bear be as realistic as possible. Modeled on a female sun bear, Cokey even has a scar on her snout and a nicked ear to make her distinctive. She’s magnificent --- so fierce and believable. As Banks tells it,
“I knew if the bear wasn’t real, if we lost the audience with a fakey looking bear, that the movie wouldn’t work at all.” She has nothing to worry about --- Cokey is truly terrifying.
The rest of the cast is marvelous, as well. Prince and Convery are well cast --- and adorable. And Russell is the perfect mother --- levelheaded and as fierce as the mama bear. Martindale and Ferguson just about steal the
show --- they are hysterical, along with Whitlock, Jr. and his new pup.
It’s heartbreaking to see Ray Liotta --- this was his last film. He’s brilliant, as always, especially when he’s complaining about watching his young grandson. He had such a tremendous screen presence --- he will be greatly missed.
Warden’s script provides more than a few edge-of-your-seat moments and a lot of laughs. Under Banks’ skillful direction, COCAINE BEAR is a thrill ride from start to finish --- and thankfully it’s only an hour and 35 minutes.
Opinion: See It Now!
The story of a wild bear who died soon after feasting on cocaine that was dropped from the sky is actually true. In 1985, Andrew Carter Thornton II, a former cop, CIA operative and drug smuggler, frequently dropped cocaine bars into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia from the private planes he utilized. This tale is the impetus for COCAINE BEAR.
Actor/director Elizabeth Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden have collaborated on a film that is far better than the normal early-in-the-year releases we have seen in the past. COCAINE BEAR combines horror with comedy that is highly entertaining and doesn’t wear out its welcome at a concise 95 minutes. A terrific ensemble cast, creepy music (courtesy of former Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh) and most importantly, a realistic looking bear, come together to alternately make audiences laugh out loud and squirm in their seats. Warden makes clear that his screenplay is 99% fiction only touching briefly on the aforementioned drug smuggler.
The film features turns by a variety of well-known actors, including Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and the late Ray Liotta in the last movie of his career. The remaining cast members are up to the task of being genuinely terrified when confronted with the crazed cocaine bear.
My favorite cast member is O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Daveed, a big bear of a man --- no pun intended --- whose signature scene has him confronted by three young hoodlums in a public restroom where they threaten him at knifepoint. Later, Daveed and his buddy Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) are dispatched to the forest by Eddie’s father and drug kingpin, Syd (Liotta), to retrieve duffle bags of cocaine dropped by Thornton with a street value in the many millions. Another cast standout is Isiah Whitlock Jr. in a very funny turn as a local detective named Bob.
Part of the creation of Cokey, as the bear was dubbed, fell to stuntman Allan Henry, while Weta, the New Zealand special effects company founded by Peter Jackson, completed the bear’s movements and various postures. This is an oversimplification of all the work that went in to make the bear look real, which, as Banks points out, was paramount if audiences were to buy into the premise of a coked-up bear running loose and mauling people.
It's only a few minutes into the film that a young couple hiking in the forest is attacked and we witness the bottom portion of a leg thrown to the ground. In other words, COCAINE BEAR is not for the squeamish – lots of blood and guts. Yet there’s no denying this movie is funny at the same time. Banks is a big fan of combining humor with horror. And she does it here in spades. This film deserves to be seen for its outrageous premise and the fact that Banks and her crew have made it seem plausible.
Opinion: See It Now!