Intoxicating ‘Cocaine Bear’ goes hilariously off the rails

Beast craves blow in darkly hilarious B-movie blood-fest worthy of a drive-in.

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Concerned mom Sari (Keri Russell) goes into the woods looking for her daughter and instead encounters the jacked-up beast of “Cocaine Bear.”

Universal Pictures

This might sound crazy, but even when the titular bear in “Cocaine Bear” was gnawing on faces and dragging victims into the woods and tossing aside leg stumps like they were discarded chicken wings at a sports bar, I kinda felt bad for the bear. It’s not her fault some dip-bleep drug smuggler tossed duffel bags of cocaine into the woods and turned the bear into an instant addict with a voracious appetite for coke and for anyone standing between the bear and the coke. Just as the shark in “Jaws” doesn’t know it’s a shark, the bear in “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t know it’s a cocaine bear. She’s a victim of circumstances.

All right, all right, so the bear is also a drooling, roaring, rampaging killing machine in Elizabeth Banks’ wildly entertaining and darkly hilarious B-movie blood-fest, which proves to be more than just a fantastically ridiculous title and a viral marketing campaign. This is a genuinely well-crafted horror gem with a winning cast, some nifty twists and a very good bear who betrays its CGI origins maybe 10% of the time but for the most part looks like an actual, cocaine-fueled black bear with lightning-quick reflexes, a big bite and an insatiable appetite for coke on the rocks. And in the trees. And on the cliffs.

Before we get into the grizzly, I mean grisly, details (after all, the Cocaine Bear is a black bear and not a grizzly bear!), let’s address that “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” tagline. In December 1985, convicted drug smuggler Andrew Thornton jumped out of a plane and plunged to his death in Knoxville, Tennessee. Thornton had dumped some 40 containers of cocaine that landed in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and authorities tracking down the bags discovered a bear who had overdosed on cocaine. The poor dead creature was dubbed “Pablo Eskobear” and became the stuff of legend — and a stuffed attraction now on display in a Kentucky souvenir shop, I kid you not.

‘Cocaine Bear’

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Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden. Rated R (for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout). Running time: 95 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

In the early going, “Cocaine Bear” gives us a comedic interpretation of the smuggler’s fatal jump and the bags of cocaine plummeting into the forest. Other than that, it’s pure fiction. Director Banks and screenwriter (and Chicago native) Jimmy Warden nimbly juggle multiple storylines and a myriad of characters (perhaps a few characters too many) and keep things moving along in brisk fashion over the 95-minute running time, which is about as long as anyone can reasonably be expected to remain invested in the story of a cocaine bear.

With a soundtrack peppered with mid-1980s pop hits such as “Jane” by Jefferson Starship (nice callback to the unofficial theme of the Banks-starring “Wet Hot American Summer”!) and “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne, “Cocaine Bear” has a visual style reminiscent of the horror films of the time, with the stellar cast throwing themselves into the material and eschewing subtle notes. (I’m not saying any of the performances are campy, but some of the acting is camping near campy.)

You know “Cocaine Bear” is going all-in when we see a couple of school-skipping 13-year-olds, Brooklynn Prince’s Dee Dee and Christian Convery’s Henry, stumbling across a brick of cocaine in the woods and deciding they’ll try it, each spooning a heaping helpful like it’s ice cream. Oh boy.

After Dee and Henry get separated while fleeing the Cocaine Bear, we pick up the stories of a number of other characters, including three local thugs who are complete dopes — the drug dealer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his friend, the troubled Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who have been sent by Eddie’s drug kingpin father Syd (the late Ray Liotta) to retrieve the drugs — and the local park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), who has a thing for a wildlife expert (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who claims to be an animal lover but seems hopelessly overmatched by the woods.

Oh, and let’s not forget Keri Russell’s Sari, who is Dee Dee’s mom and quite the mama bear herself, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Bob, a cop who has been trying to nail Syd and his gang for years and is following a tip that the drugs might be in these woods.

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The late Ray Liotta (right, with O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and Ayoola Smart) plays a drug kingpin searching for the stash in “Cocaine Bear.”

Universal Pictures

All of these folks, among others, eventually find themselves in the path of the rampaging Cocaine Bear, and as you’d expect, many of them will not survive those encounters. The deaths and grievous injuries are meted out in creatively gruesome fashion (at one point it’s as if we’re in a “Final Destination” movie), with fingers, legs and heads sometimes separated from their owners.

Russell’s Sari, racing about the woods in a pink jumpsuit, is a force to be reckoned with, while Jackson and Ehrenreich carry on their own buddy movie in the midst of the carnage. Young Christian Convery is a hoot as Henry, and of course, it’s a bittersweet feeling to see the great Ray Liotta in his final role, in a movie that has even more cocaine than “Goodfellas,” and this is probably the only time you’ll see “Cocaine Bear” and “Goodfellas” in the same sentence. But whether Mr. Liotta was starring in one of the greatest movies ever or having a good time going over the top in a blood-soaked drive-in type movie, it was our privilege to see him in action.

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