Stretching the phrase “inspired by true events” to its bare limits, Cocaine Bear (★★★☆☆) takes off from the stranger-than-fiction real-life tale of a Kentucky drug runner who, in 1985, dumped bundles of cocaine from a plane over Georgia, then perished trying to parachute after the drugs, a large, expensive portion of which were found and somehow consumed by a 500-lb. black bear deep in the Georgia woods.
Anyone interested in the dead-serious facts of the case can grab a copy of Sally Denton’s comprehensive chronicle The Bluegrass Conspiracy, originally published in 1990.
This movie, on the other hand, takes a bold leap off that plane with Thornton’s duffel bags full of brown paper-wrapped bricks of blow, and never looks back.
Directed by Pitch Perfect mogul Elizabeth Banks, and scripted by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear leaves no gruesome gag unturned, no outrageous one-liner untold, serving up the sort of anything-goes big-screen comedy that comes along rarely.
Mid-rampage, the coke-fueled bear snorts a line off someone’s severed leg. This ain’t National Geographic, but a Lord and Miller-produced, laugh-a-minute gorefest with a hint of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or ’80s comedies like Ruthless People, featuring a sprawling cast of famous character actors as the various folks on the hunt for, or on the run from, the hairy, hungry coke fiend.
The real kick is that Warden’s script gives award winners like Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. amusingly idiosyncratic characters to play. Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen roles, is a delight as Syd, the St. Louis crime boss who was meant to be on the receiving end of Thornton’s drug shipment.
Syd’s also had it up to here having to babysit his rambunctious grandson while his depressed, recently dumped son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), drowns his sorrows. So he dispatches Eddie, and henchman Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to the Chattahoochee National Forest to recover as much of the cocaine as possible.
But Eddie and Daveed will have to out-race the bear, who has its paws full chasing after every stray brick of coke, and attacking two tweens, Dee Dee (Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (scene-stealing Christian Convery-Jennings), hiking up the aptly named Blood Mountain.
Also running scared in this mix are Dee Dee’s resourceful mom, Sari (Keri Russell), a bumbling trio of bandits, two hilarious EMTs (Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim), and Martindale’s randy Ranger Liz, eager to seduce Ferguson’s oblivious park guide Peter.
Martindale and Ferguson make a fine match as comic opposites, with Ranger Liz especially tearing into a bawdy line about her stuffed and mounted beaver. Everybody in the forest is after something — Dee Dee and Henry were just hoping to paint a waterfall — and that drug-addled bear keeps spoiling things by tearing people apart, and then tossing the mangled limbs and extremities at the camera. (The humans inflict plenty of damage on each other, too.)
The bear itself, brought to life through CGI and the motion capture performance of stuntman Allan Henry, also develops as a character invested in more than merely getting high. Still, the film doesn’t aspire to any profound messages about animal rights or environmental awareness.
It’s a well-acted amusement park thrill ride, smartly paced to deliver build-up, suspense, and pay-off, again and again, without constantly repeating itself, or arriving at any deeper point beyond the catharsis of tension-punchline-release.
Wherever it lands, the filmmakers take risks to get there, lending the film an atmosphere of anticipation — i.e., “Okay, how will they top that?” — that keeps the ride rolling until the assorted subplots converge in a finale that resolves all the bloody pandemonium surprisingly neatly.
Cocaine Bear is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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