No movie could live up to Cocaine Bear’s premise, but even I was taken aback

Cocaine Bear ★½
(MA) 95 minutes

Since the significance of the title Cocaine Bear may be obscure, I’ll try to shed some light. In essence, this is a movie about a bear: not just any bear, but a bear that has taken a lot of cocaine. So much cocaine, in fact, that it sets aside its usual restraint and becomes the deadliest of threats to anyone in the vicinity.

Cocaine Bear is a film about a bear that has taken a lot of cocaine.Credit:Universal Pictures via AP

Perhaps no actual movie could live up to the ideal simplicity of such a premise. Still, I went in with high enough hopes to be taken aback by the sheer awfulness of this campy horror-comedy – a better-resourced production than most such wilfully B-grade efforts, involving numerous well-known names on both sides of the camera.

The tall-tale script by Jimmy Warden is based, very loosely, on an only-in-America true story. In 1985, around 300 pounds of cocaine was dropped from a plane into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, where a 175-pound black bear found and ingested a significant portion.

The bear then died, apparently without first embarking on any kind of drug-fuelled killing spree. Cocaine Bear corrects that oversight, furnishing the surrounding area with an ample supply of crooks, cops, rangers and so forth to be terrorised and, in many cases, bloodily ripped apart.

One possible approach to this set-up would be to play it dumb but relatively straight, focusing on the action-horror side and leaving room for us to supply our own wisecracks in between the jump scares. For that, you’d want a technically skilled director like Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) or Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D).

A black bear goes on a drug-fuelled killing spree in Cocaine Bear.Credit:Universal Studios

Alternately, you could use the concept as a pretext for a satire of 1980s excess, where we cheer on the bear as it chews through various scumbags who merit this comeuppance: would-be Scarfaces, vapid Hollywood types, maybe a stand-in for a young Trump (this is Cocaine Bear: subtlety was never on the table). In that case, the director of choice might be Adam McKay, whose apocalyptic Don’t Look Up saw a gallery of grotesques facing a still more deadly threat.

Instead, the project wound up in the hands of Elizabeth Banks, who must be among the clumsiest directors to have an ongoing career making Hollywood movies (this is her third). It’s baffling, in fact, that her comic timing as a performer so totally evaporates when she gets behind the camera: in between bear attacks, she ploughs dutifully through the script line by line, cross-cutting between actors whose performances might as well have been recorded on separate Zoom calls.

It’s an approach that does no favours for anyone in the theoretically promising ensemble cast, which includes Keri Russell as an anxious single mother, Isiah Whitlock Jr as a sheriff, and Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr as smugglers aiming to recover their loot (the late Ray Liotta, who plays their boss, doesn’t show up till near the end).

Cocaine Bear features a promising cast but ultimately the film fizzles. From left: O’Shea Jackson Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Ayoola Smart and Ray Liotta.Credit:Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures via AP

Worst-served of all are child stars Brooklynn Prince (from The Florida Project) and Christian Convery, whose shared scenes are wooden enough to suggest a parody of Wes Anderson’s artfully flat tween romance Moonrise Kingdom. Here and throughout, it’s impossible to tell what tone Warden might originally have been aiming for in the dialogue, which comes through as relentlessly flippant yet short on jokes.

That leaves the unspeaking bear, which as a digital creation is plainly costly but not especially convincing (in fairness, there may not be many experts who can supply first-hand information about what a cocaine-addled bear would look like). Used to bring a jolt of energy to the otherwise dead proceedings, it typically sticks around just long enough to carve someone up, lurching abruptly onto the screen like a video-game boss or a lethal cartoon character: Yogi gone feral.

As it happens, Cocaine Bear hits local cinemas a week after Blood and Honey, a much cheaper tongue-in-cheek shocker about an evil Winnie the Pooh. That might tell us something about the appeal of Cocaine Bear as a concept: the paradoxical place of bears in the human imagination, as childhood companions and as feared predators, carries a charge that could well be further explored. Meanwhile, the best I can say is if you’re keen to put down your money to see an awful movie, you’ll get what you paid for.

Cocaine Bear is in cinemas from February 23.

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