The greatest joke of this blood-spattered horror-comedy from Elizabeth Banks is that it exists.
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By Jason Zinoman
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When you were in high school or college, did you know someone who would stay up late, get stoned and wonder what would happen if you got a pet high? That person went to Hollywood. How else to explain “Cocaine Bear,” a chaotic, blood-splattered major studio horror-comedy whose greatest joke is that it exists.
The title, which has drawn comparisons to the equally functional “Snakes on a Plane,” says it all. The year is 1985. After a pratfall in a plane leads a smuggler to drop a ton of drugs on the mountains of Georgia, a bear discovers it, snorts it up and turns into a mix of Tony Montana and Jason Voorhees.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script by Jimmy Warden, this movie arrives in theaters with considerable anticipation, based on the title and its terrific trailer. For an audience desperately looking for a good time, they’ll find it. More discerning fans of junk might see an opportunity missed.
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At its best, “Cocaine Bear” has the feel of an inside joke. It consistently invites you to laugh at it. The producers are clearly aiming to capture the lightning in a bottle that “M3gan” pulled off earlier this year, another Universal horror-comedy whose slick special effects elevated its B-movie conceit. Whereas “M3gan” steered clear of too much onscreen violence, angling for a PG-13 rating, “Cocaine Bear” wallows in it. Viewers with a taste for tastefulness (those weirdos) will balk. But gorehounds, myself among them, appreciate a studio playing around in the muck. Inspired by the slasher films of the 1980s, not to mention great horror-comedies from that era like the “Evil Dead” films, Banks grasps the comic potential of the gross-out.
In the blunt spirit of the title, let me get right to the point: Two severed legs, two fingers shot off, a decapitation, some splattered brains, a grotesquely contorted wrist and all kinds of guts and blood and human innards. Banks doesn’t always dole out the viscera artfully (better to follow a leg with an arm, not another leg) but she commits to the too-muchness necessary for comedy.
While it beats out “M3gan” in levels of gruesomeness, “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t have that film’s mean streak or moments of acid weirdness. Or its steadily building momentum. In fact, “Cocaine Bear” too often feels like a one-joke movie, stretched thin. Gifted dramatic actors are tasked with thankless roles, including Keri Russell as a protective mom, Isiah Whitlock Jr. as an irritated cop with a bland side plot involving a pet; and by far the best, Margo Martindale as a love-hungry park ranger, who takes more punishment than anyone. The plot twists can seem irrelevant, including a betrayal that has the impact of a soft sneeze. And the script becomes dutifully sentimental at the end with characters forced to say things like “You’re more than a drug dealer. You’re my friend, my best friend.”
Nothing comes close to upstaging the bear, an animal perfect for this genre-blurring role, because it moves so seamlessly in the public consciousness between cute (teddy, Yogi) and terrifying (“The Revenant”). At one point, Cocaine Bear sniffs a hint of white powder and emerges with renewed strength. A gutsier movie might have drawn this out and given us an ursine Popeye, with cocaine as spinach.
As fun as this movie can be — one chase scene in an ambulance makes up for a few rote jump scares — there are frequently hints of a better one inside it. The best version is a raucous, transgressive comedy, the kind they supposedly don’t make anyone. Banks does seem to get away with some giddy, dangerous moments, like a scene in which two preteens try to do cocaine. It gets a few laughs, but leaves plenty more on the table.
The actor who does not is a snarling, gun-toting Ray Liotta (in one of his final roles) as a desperate man trying to regain cocaine for his cartel bosses. But making the drug dealer the one truly villainous character gives “Cocaine Bear” the morality of an after-school special. Early in the movie there’s a clip of the old “This is your brain on drugs” ad, a reminder that the story takes place against the backdrop of the drug war of the 1980s, a catastrophic policy failure with severe human ramifications that we are still living with. That “Cocaine Bear” is cautious about touching on this theme is understandable, maybe even preferable. But it’s also symptomatic of a studio sensibility that seems only willing to risk so much.
Rated R for brains on drugs and brains on floor. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.
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