COCAINE BEAR is a joyously peculiar amalgam of carnage, comedy, and horror that respects few rules of cinematic storytelling aside from insuring that (spoiler alert) the dog is okay. It’s an impudent thing that thumbs its nose at convention while seeing to it that, despite broken laws and the slaughter of innocent (and not so innocent) bystanders, a curiously satisfying justice is served.
Based on the true story of a cocaine drop in the 1980s that went south. it gathers a motley crew of characters together on Blood Mountain in the Chatahoochie National Forest in Georgia to face off with the eponymous ursine. That would be a mama bear that found some of that illegal substance and developed a taste for it. Starting with the hapless Scandinavians who point out that there is something wrong with that bear before discovering, the hard way, just how right they were, very, very bad things happen to anyone who crosses the bear’s path. To be clear, this is not a bear looking for trouble, just her next fix. On the other hand, the cream puff punks (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna) wreaking havoc at the park for kicks are doing just that (looking for trouble), and they find it when they run afoul of two St. Louis drug dealers sent to find the missing cocaine. Well, one drug dealer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr), who sizes up the kids trying to mug him in the park bathroom and makes very short work of them, to the consternation of his reluctant companion is Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich). He’s the grieving son of the local drug lord who wants out of the family business after the death of his wife, and the unfortunate tattoo he got in her honor. There’s also the big-city cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on their trail while dealing with his own issues about a dog adoption snafu, a tough-talking park ranger (the inimitable Margo Martindale) pining for a posting to Yellowstone and for the local, and oblivious, wildlife inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and Sari (Keri Russell), a perky but put-upon single mother looking for the 13-year-old daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) who skipped school with her pal Henry (Christian Convery) to paint the scenic waterfall in the park.
Director Elizabeth Banks walks that treacherously precarious line between funny and suspenseful with a piquant touch as the film takes tropes from B-movie horror and reworks them with some deliciously oddball touches as well as surprising humanity in some of the most hardened characters. That does not include Syd White (Ray Liotta), as Eddie’s dad, who may be babysitting his grandson while Eddie works out some issues, but isn’t taking any crap from anyone interfering with his plans to save himself from the cartel who sent him the cocaine on credit. If this is Liotta’s last screen performance, it is one that gives him surprising range as he, too, walks a precarious line between absurd and ominous that works both ways. The man may be remembered for gritty drama, at which he excelled, but, damn, he could be funny, too.
Much of the humor derives from the classic premise of characters being so very out of place there in the woods, even the ranger, with her chain-smoking connivance over the oddly cosmopolitan object of her affections. It works because there is a nod and a wink to the audience that everyone is in on this joke that allows Henry to effortlessly declaim trenchant observations about their situation. While Sari searching for her missing daughter provides the heart-tugging element, the real heart of the film is Eddie and Daveed, and that allows the film to rise above being mere fluff. They go on a surprisingly sophisticated emotional journey together that redeems them both with their wisecracking and sparring on the road trip to Georgia that neither of them wanted to make. It helps that while Daveed is violent, he never quite crosses the line into being gratuitous about it, and somehow even this hardened guy can find grudging sympathy for the emotional mess that Syd has made of Eddie.
Banks also accomplishes another tricky task. That would be making a person being torn limb from limb, ahem, gut-bustlingly funny. It may be hard not to turn away at times, but the nimble script mines a treasure trove of dry, very black humor in the constant irony of people being just a little more slow-witted than their drug-addled animal adversary. Kudos, too, for the CGI that brings the bear to such startling life, and with an impressive array of moods that change in an instant.
COCAINE BEAR could have been a one-joke idea drawn out into a mind-numbing flick, but it isn’t. Often unpredictable, it stays fresh, and wildly funny, until the end.