' ' Cinema Romantico: Cocaine Bear

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Cocaine Bear

A drug smuggler (Matthew Rhys) hurling packages of cocaine from an airplane and into the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest below while karate chopping the air to the bitchin’ guitar chords of Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” only to accidentally knock himself out and plunge to his death is a fitting opener for a movie with a can’t-possibly-miss title like “Cocaine Bear” that misses, badly. Loosely based on a true story, the smuggler’s cocaine is ingested by an American black bear (CGI created) who promptly turns into a woodland Jaws as the drug kingpin Syd White (Ray Liotta) and his dithering associates (O’Shea Jackson and Alden Ehrenreich) seek to recover the lost stash, a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) seeks out the kingpin, Sari (Keri Russell) seeks her daughter and her daughter’s friend who have skipped school to venture into the forest, and Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) pines for a Yellowstone promotion even while essentially ignoring her own job. This is a lot of characters and a lot of stories, which is part of the problem. Perhaps narrative in a movie called “Cocaine Bear” is immaterial, and that might be fine, but then why devote so much time to it and, worse, why connect those narrative dots with so little flourish? This renders an inertia that gets the movie off to a strangely slow start.

It’s tempting to chalk up “Cocaine Bear’s” weird rhythms as a deliberate embodiment of its eponymous drug of choice, sort of like listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” but it quickly becomes clear this sensation stems more from director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden struggling to decide whether they’re making genuine pulp in the manner of the mid-80s appropriate “Road House” or winking comedy. Sometimes the violence is goofy, severed limbs dropping from the sky as punchlines, sometimes the violence is just grisly (I won’t even tell you what happens to Liotta’s character). Though Sari is costumed in a pink jumpsuit, Russell seems to have been guided to play things straight, though the rote details of her character’s life and the kids’ reasons for going to the forest betray the lack of imagination, epitomized in mama bear and cubs metaphor that really needed to be amplified to work. Syd, meanwhile, insisting he and his charges press deeper into the forest despite probable death lurking around every tree could have been Roger Ebert’s Climbing Killer Syndrome rendered as an anti-drug PSA if this movie had any kind of campy finesse. As it is, rather than Whitlock’s cop chortling “Apex predator high on cocaine and you’re going towards it?” reaching the tongue-in-cheek pantheon, it just falls flat.

Any sense of an anti-drug message goes out the window, anyway, in how cocaine sort of presents the drug as the bear’s superpower, evoked in a climactic death sequence in which the animal getting a sudden fix functions like the dilithium crystals providing a “Star Trek” spaceship warp drive. It might honestly be funny in a warped way if the movie knew what it was doing. No, the only time “Cocaine Bear” truly achieves lift off is an extended sequence in which the bear run downs an ambulance while Ranger Liz blasts away with her service revolver like she bought it at a gun show and taught herself to shoot from YouTube videos, blending the goofy and the grisly in exquisitely equal measure. It also reveals Martindale as the one actor most clued into the right vibe, not only understanding her role as mere monster movie bait, drawing out the character’s worst qualities so that when she gets put through the ringer, you are granted permission to laugh, but on some primal level understanding that in a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity. Does that go for a world of bad movies too?

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