The “based on a true story” label for films is always met with a huge grain of salt from audiences as they usually know that most films that are adapted from real events usually take a lot of liberties from the actual source of events for the sake of drama, action, emotion, etc – but Cocaine Bear just might take the cake for the most liberties I’ve seen taken with a “true story,” and I think it’s all the better for it. The only real, concrete correlation between the film and the real-life events is the fact that both begin with a drug smuggler dropping cocaine into a forrest out of an airplane, and then a bear digests a lot of the cocaine. In real life, the bear was simply found dead in Northern Georgia – but the film does not follow this at all; the bear is very much alive and goes on an absolute rampage that results in a group of cops, tourists, criminals, and families all converging into one genuinely insane and wild ride.
One of the biggest credits to give Cocaine Bear is within Elizabeth Banks’ direction. I won’t lie, I’m a fan of Elizabeth Banks as an actress but her directorial efforts have mostly been misses for me, and that was really hurting my anticipation level for the film. However, she really shines behind the camera here with not only an insane amount of energy and suspense that surprisingly never really lightens up throughout the entire film – but there are numerous sequences in the film that are done with a lot of creativity and genuine tension. Of course, mostly anyone buying a ticket for Cocaine Bear would expect something more like a comedy than anything else; and they’d likely be satisfied with the results of what they get as the film is incredibly funny. But with that being said, Banks does a great job at balancing in some legitimate scares, gruesome kills, and tense and exciting set-pieces. This results in a film that is as equally hilarious and meta as it is an actual thrill-ride from beginning to end.
Another big plus for the film is the massive, sprawling cast that it features. It’s genuinely hard to narrow down who to specifically compliment, as you have some really fantastic performers like Kerri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Margo Martindale who are turning in some expectedly great work, or even Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery who turn in two of the best performances from child actors that I’ve seen in quite some time. But for me, the film really shined within the subplot of O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, and Ray Liotta’s (who is excellent in one of his final roles) characters converged. The three of them are associated with the drug smugglers who dropped the cocaine into the forrest – and without spoiling anything, they truly get into some of the best antics in the film; namely when and how they come across the hilarious Isiah Witlock Jr.’s character named Bob, who is a detective on their trail.
On top of the fact that all of the individual performances and little side quests that the characters go on together is as equally wild as everything else going on, it’s when these characters come across the actual bear that things get truly exciting. My biggest fear for Cocaine Bear is that it simply wouldn’t achieve the movie I was picturing in my head based off of the title; that it would be a film that took itself too seriously or didn’t go all the way with it’s opportunities. But all of those hesitations were squashed nearly from the get-go, and the film does a wonderful job at consistently and cleverly subverting expectations, resulting in a film that truly felt unpredictable as I truly had no idea where it was narratively heading after a certain point. Is there stuff to critique? I guess. But the fact of the matter is, if you’re buying a ticket for Cocaine Bear, you’re submitting yourself to the idea of a movie that will deliver a crazy, hilarious ride – and I truly felt as if the film delivered on the ridiculous promise and potential for its premise, making for one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in quite a few months.