Keri Russell’s Sari hides from the Cocaine Bear in “Cocaine Bear.” (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

Keri Russell’s Sari hides from the Cocaine Bear in “Cocaine Bear.” (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

On the Screen: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is a simple, but fun, slasher

The film transforms the titular bear into something like an ‘80s slasher villain

In 1985, a real black bear in Georgia ate several pounds of cocaine that were dropped from a crashed plane. It was found dead — the taxidermied body is still on display in Lexington, Kentucky.

In 2021, Universal Pictures announced “Cocaine Bear,” a horror comedy directed by Elizabeth Banks, based on that bear. The film takes some pretty heavy creative liberties, especially considering the real bear did not kill anyone.

Released last week, the film is a hilarious, bloody, simple ride — transforming the titular bear into something like an ‘80s slasher villain.

Acting against the drug-fueled force of nature are a colorful cast of characters, portrayed by some noteworthy names, as they navigate Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, pursued by Cocaine Bear.

The film’s biggest strength is those characters, who are without exception likable and fun — split largely across three planes of action that intersect and eventually combine for the finale. Certain recognizable landmarks are established early, like a fork in the road, a gazebo and a ranger cabin, that are then returned to by different characters at different times for a fun sense of continuity.

Keri Russell plays Sari, a mother looking for her daughter who is lost in the woods. O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays Daveed, who is looking for the drugs lost in the woods for drug kingpin Syd, in a posthumous appearance of the late Ray Liotta. Character actress Margo Martindale plays Ranger Liz, who wants all of the troublemakers — human and ursine — out of her park.

The main character of the film is unambiguously the bear, who is putting paws and claws in the footsteps of iconic slasher villains like Michael Myers. When Mark Mothersbaugh’s ‘80s synth score flares up and the bear arrives in the film’s finale, it’s more evocative than it ought to be.

True to the real story, the bear finds duffel bags filled with cocaine in the woods, dropped from a plane by real-life criminal Andrew C. Thornton II. It’s what happens after the bear partakes of the drug that ventures into fiction. The bear navigates the woods, largely driven by a pursuit for more drugs, but colliding violently with the lives and efforts of many of the park’s visitors.

There’s maybe some unpacking to do with the film’s depiction of drugs and addiction — especially as it makes several jokes out of the bear’s desire to consume more cocaine throughout the movie. The film walks a pretty fine line as it depicts the drug largely as a joke, and its peddlers, specifically Liotta’s kingpin Syd, as its villain.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a lot of cocaine featured in the film titled “Cocaine Bear,” but there were two moments that involved youths that did leave me surprised.

Ultimately, the content never felt distasteful. It’s good natured and the bear is portrayed in a positive light. The bear even gets a happy ending. The drug content is, however, something to be aware of.

Most of the film’s runtime is devoted to a variety of set pieces designed to give Cocaine Bear room to commit violent kills — a particular standout being an ambulance chase scene. But the film does take some time to explore ambition and uncertainty, with several characters struggling with the weight of their options for the future.

Though over-the-top violence is certainly the film’s main focus, the comedy element shouldn’t be understated — a lot of the characters and writing are really funny. That shouldn’t come as a surprise with Elizabeth Banks in the director’s chair and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller serving as producers.

Jackson’s Daveed finds a lot of humor as an exasperated, overworked and underappreciated lackey, towing around Syd’s son Eddie, played by Alden Ehrenreich. He gets attacked by a gang of weirdos who have been terrorizing the park, he loses fingers, he gets blood all over his favorite jersey.

“Cocaine Bear” is funny more often than it is shockingly violent. At a relatively tight 95 minutes, the film is everything it needs to be. It’s snappy, it’s silly, and it most definitely tells the story of a bear on cocaine. It’s pretty simple, but it’s probably the most fun to be had in a movie theater this weekend.

“Cocaine Bear” will be playing this weekend at Kenai Cinema and the Orca Theater. Check showtimes and purchase tickets at catheaters.com and orcatheater.com.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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