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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Cocaine Bear"


Cocaine Bear meets the minimum requirements of a movie called Cocaine Bear, which isn’t quite enough for me. It is about a bear, yes, and that bear ingests cocaine, and then it goes on a rampage looking for even more cocaine. No doubt they started with the title and worked backward.

This comic thriller, which is now available as a digital rental, was inspired by a real news item from the 1980s: A black bear in Georgia came upon a stash of cocaine dropped from a passing plane by a drug smuggler. The bear ingested the cocaine, and the bear died.

The true story isn’t all that interesting beyond the WTF headlines it produced, and so Cocaine Bear tells the urban legend version of the original event, with details having been distorted and sensationalized through a decades-long game of telephone. In this version of events, set in 1985, the guy dispatching the cocaine from the air goes tumbling out after it, and so most of the stash is randomly scattered throughout the forests of Georgia. And the bear develops a habit almost instantly, and its ensuing behavior recalls the tagline of the 1976 drive-in staple Grizzly: 18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!

Even though it’s a CGI creation, the Cocaine Bear itself is the true star of the movie, and its animalistic desire for more drugs inspires some genuine laughs. Shame about the human characters, then, especially because there are so many of them. For some reason, the screenplay by Jimmy Warden introduces enough characters to fill an entire season of television, and at one point there are 4 or 5 different groups wandering around the woods independently of one another. In fact, you’ll likely forget certain actors are in the movie until they pop back up again after a long absence.

Amongst them are O’Shea Jackson and Alden Ehrenreich as not-too-competent fixers sent out to gather the wayward drugs. Also in the mix is Keri Russell as an overworked mother searching for her young daughter who has been carted off by the bear. Then there’s Isaiah Whitlock Jr. as an FBI agent on the trail of the drug ring, Margo Martindale as a cantankerous park ranger, and the late Ray Liotta as the crime kingpin who sent Jackson and Ehrenreich on their mission in the first place but goes looking for them when they’re waylaid. And let’s not forget the roving gang of dumb teenage hoodlums who get pulled into the violent mess, and the unsuspecting EMTs who (in the movie’s best set piece) discover a coked-up bear can, in fact, outrun an ambulance.

Of course, most of these characters are fodder for the mill, and their death scenes are outrageously gory in a way that was clearly designed to get midnight audiences hooting and hollering at the screen. But it’s a strange thing because, although Cocaine Bear has the trappings of a fun creature feature, it never finds that magical B-movie sweet spot. It’s sort of a mercurial thing: Why does a movie like Tremors, which is also about yokels being ripped apart by bloodthirsty creatures, work like gangbusters while Cocaine Bear falls sort of flat? Is it because that earlier film was genuine grade-A schlock, while this new one feels calculated to be schlock?

There’s an important lesson to be learned: A movie trying desperately to be a future cult classic will never become a cult classic.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.