Back in 2006, we got a little movie called Snakes on a Plane. The movie practically sold itself. With a title like that, how could it not set the internet ablaze? It’s a trashy horror flick in which animals go wild and kill off a bunch of unsympathetic cannon fodder, with Samuel L. Jackson mugging for the camera with his characteristic lack of shame. On paper, this is exactly the stuff that late-night parties and cult followings are made of.

And then… nothing really happened. The film inexplicably bombed at the box office, likely because New Line made the bone-headed decision not to screen the film for critics. (Like they thought negative reviews would’ve hurt this movie, what the fuck?) The movie hung around on the fringes of the zeitgeist for another year or so, and then it simply vanished from everyone’s collective consciousness like it was never there.

There could be any number of reasons why Snakes on a Plane didn’t have any staying power. (Believe it or not, it’s actually really REALLY hard to make a cult classic film or predict what the next one will be.) Personally, I’d argue that the film simply didn’t have much to offer beyond the title. Even the “motherfucking snakes” line is just a variation on the title, after all. The film had nothing funny or creative or iconic to offer beyond that initial hook.

Which brings us to Cocaine Bear.

In December of 1985, drug smuggler Andrew Thornton II (here played by Matthew Rhys, husband to Keri Russell) was piloting an airplane loaded to the brim with Colombian cocaine. In fact, the plane was too heavy, so he took to literally throwing 200 pounds of cocaine out the airplane over Georgia. Thornton then attempted to jump out of the airplane over Tennessee with a faulty parachute and was killed instantly. Three months later, a bear in Northern Georgia was found dead next to 40 opened plastic containers of cocaine.

Enter screenwriter Jimmy Warden and director/producer Elizabeth Banks, who dared to ask the question, “What if the bear had lived to go on a murder spree while hopped up on a cocaine addiction?”

The bear is of course the main attraction here, and everything to do with the bear is aces. It’s funny, it’s creative, and it’s over-the-top gory in a way that’s great fun to watch. The bear is a fantastic CGI creation bursting with personality, which helps to make it clear that the bear isn’t really the bad guy here, just a victim of circumstance like anyone else. It’s not often we see a killing machine we can empathize with, and I appreciate that. I might add that the bear is a female, and the “Mama Bear” motif is used quite ingeniously in the third act, so points for that.

The problem is, this is a $35 milllion dollar movie and pretty much all of that budget went toward the CGI bear. As a reminder, the similarly violent effects-laden comedy Deadpool was budgeted at $60 million. The movie desperately needed that extra $25 million. Seriously, the movie is called “Cocaine Bear“, it’s not like they needed that money for the marketing costs!

The point being that the bear is only in maybe 15 minutes of this 100-minute movie. Through the rest of the movie, we have to spend an eternity with our victim pool.

  • Sari (Keri Russell) is our de facto protagonist because she’s the only character who doesn’t come with a dotted line clearly tattooed across her neck. She’s in this movie because her tween daughter (Deirdre, or “Dee Dee”, played by Brooklyn Prince) skipped out of school to sneak away into the forest with her friend Henry (Christian Convery). The two kids encountered our coked-up bear and now Dee Dee is missing, so Henry has to help Sari find her missing daughter.
  • Syd (the late Ray Liotta in his final film role) is the drug kingpin who lost all that cocaine and now he’s on the hook with a Colombian cartel to get the product either recovered or paid for. To that end, he assigns Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) with the task of retrieving the cocaine. For assistance, Daveed goes to Syd’s estranged son (Eddie, played by Alden Ehrenreich), who’s deep in mourning his dead wife.
  • Isaiah Whitlock Jr. plays Bob, a detective from Knoxville who gets stuck with Thornton’s dead body and follows the case out to the Georgia woods Thornton was flying over. He’s assisted by Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart), though she’s mostly responsible for dog-sitting a little Pekinese that Bob got stuck with as one of umpteen running comedic jokes in this picture.
  • Margo Martindale plays Ranger Liz, a self-absorbed egomaniac too pompous to realize how incompetent she is. In point of fact, Liz is far more focused on flirting with her crush (wildlife inspector Peter, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) than actually doing her job. At present, Liz’s other major pressing issue is the local gang of tweakers (only credited as “Stache”, “Vest” and “Ponytail”, respectively played by Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna) who hang around the forest to mug tourists, shoplift from the merch store, get high, and so on.
  • Olaf and Elsa (respectively played by Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra) are a couple of European tourists passing through the beautiful Georgian forests as they plan to get married.
  • Beth and Tom (respectively played by Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss) are a couple of paramedics who get called into all this mess just before they get killed off.

Those are way, way, WAAAY too storylines to try and juggle within 100 minutes of runtime. Indeed, the filmmakers prove hopelessly incapable of balancing all these plotlines or cutting between them in a coherent or compelling way. More importantly, the mere process of sufficiently setting up all these storylines and introducing all these characters makes the first act a tedious half-hour chore to sit through. Nobody came to this movie expecting to put in all this effort at keeping track of so much plot, we came here for the simple visceral thrill of watching people getting mauled by a bear high on cocaine!

Which brings me to the other major problem here: This victim pool is too damn big. There are too many brainless and useless characters here, with too many jokes and quirks that simply aren’t funny. And I wouldn’t even mind having so many unfunny, unsympathetic, two-dimensional characters in the cast, if only we got to see them killed off in a timely manner. Much as I loved seeing these characters getting slaughtered in grisly fashion, every second leading up to that felt like a freaking hour. With maybe two or three exceptions, I can’t possibly stress enough how much I did NOT want to spend any time with the human characters in this movie.

Last but not least, the film is indeed set in 1985, when the actual events took place. While the outdoor forest setting doesn’t exactly lend itself to the expected ’80s imagery, we do nonetheless get a ton of great needle-drops from the era. More importantly, the film makes early and frequent use of imagery and rhetoric pertaining to the War on Drugs. In a way, the premise and the presentation work nicely as a parody of anti-drug hysteria and a satire of drug crime in general. It’s subtle and superficial, but it’s not like a trashy horror movie about a coked-up bear was ever discussing the topic in detail and I appreciate what was in there.

Overall, I’m sorry to say that I was disappointed with Cocaine Bear. Maybe the film needed a bigger budget to give the CGI bear more screentime, or maybe the one-joke premise was never going to sustain anything more than a half-hour short film. I only know that the bear itself is the only good thing about this movie, and that’s just enough for ten or fifteen fantastic minutes surrounded by 90 minutes of hot garbage. And it’s not like the movie failed for lack of talent, it simply failed for lack of effective humor and compelling material to keep up the energy between kills.

I feel compelled to add that I had the misfortune of seeing the movie with an especially disrespectful audience. In hindsight, I expect the title and premise would definitely attract the kind of inconsiderate assholes who talk loudly and play with their cell phones all through a movie. Chalk it up as another reason why I’d recommend waiting until home streaming for this one.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Cocaine Bear

  1. This is what happens when you think a mildly-interesting premise is enough to carry an entire movie without putting the work in to bolster the idea. A concept like a bear on a drug-fueled rampage should have been balls to the wall insane.

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