Cocaine Bear: I’ve had it with the motherf**king cocaine in this bear, as Samuel L Jackson might put it

Ray Liotta and the rest of an unnecessarily classy cast give it their all in a film that will go down nicely with a sack of tortilla chips and a vat of cola

Cocaine Bear
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Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cert: 18
Starring: Keri Russell, O'Shea Jackson Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins

There is always a danger that the season’s pre-emptively identified midnight movie turns out to be nothing more than a three-starry, mildly diverting, largely forgettable slot-filler. Call it Snakes on a Plane syndrome. The truth, as demonstrated by a million Tarantino copyists in the mid-1990s, is that you can’t manufacture a cult.

Three-starry, and so-so is, indeed, pretty much where Cocaine Bear has ended up. Filmed in those parts of Wicklow that look most like Georgia, Elizabeth Banks’s film gathered early buzz for its title alone. It’s about a bear that accidentally takes cocaine and eats people. As Samuel L Jackson may have noted, “I have had it with the motherf**king cocaine in this bear!”

Social media went properly crazy when a trailer arrived just before Christmas. Quotably dumb lines. Pastel 1980s vibe. A bizarrely large number of actors from The Americans. What’s not to snark?

While there is nothing much wrong with Cocaine Bear, it does feel divorced from cinematic context. Banks and her team attempt a big-studio take on a class of exploitation flick that barely exists any more. Based on a true story, the film begins with Matthew Rhys, playing a drug smuggler, dumping blocks of cocaine from a struggling private plane.


Among those below, soon to be fleeing the eponymous hopped-up omnivore, are Keri Russell as a struggling nurse and Margo Martindale as a hapless park ranger. Is it a coincidence that three faces from The Americans, FX’s great spy series, make prominent appearances here? Perhaps the gag is that both entertainments are set in the 1980s. That may have to do as the film’s only subtext.

The filmmakers have made the interesting decision to lean into enough blood and viscera to generate a (now fairly rare) 18 certificate. There is nothing wrong with that aesthetically. The best sequence finds the bear, in pursuit of a blameless ambulance, chewing lumps out of minor characters’ brains while Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough blares in accompaniment. Severed limbs fall from the skies. Intestines are chewed up with ursine abandon. You could make a comparison with what Sam Raimi once did in The Evil Dead, but the effect is closer to the blood-pumping Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

No true exploitation movie would begin with a solemn disclaimer telling us that brown bears really aren’t so bad

Younger audiences will, however, undoubtedly catch up with and enjoy Cocaine Bear when it arrives to stream. Overseen by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Lego Movie fame, the film will go down nicely as a forbidden pleasure with a sack of tortilla chips and a vat of cola. (Let’s not pretend teenagers don’t watch worse when unobserved.)

An unnecessarily classy cast gives it their all. Russell is well suited for … well, not so much final girl as final mom. The charismatic Alden Ehrenreich reminds us why he was tipped for stardom before the hiccup of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Brooklynn Prince, the juvenile lead from The Florida Project, looks to be coping admirably with the difficult early teens. But the film earns a special place for offering us one of the late Ray Liotta’s last turns. Nobody else was better at this class of gravel-throated minor hoodlum.

For all that, Cocaine Bear isn’t quite so much fun as it plainly believes itself to be. This is a rare film that extracts humour from younger teenagers shovelling down cocaine on penknives, but elsewhere the tone is closer to something produced by Steven Spielberg. The real nastiness happens on the outer orbit of a sweetly beating American heart. No true exploitation movie would begin with a solemn disclaimer telling us that brown bears really aren’t so bad. No true exploitation movie would cost $35 million.

The thing is fun but, if we may be allowed an oxymoron, it is genuinely ersatz from ear to claw. Three stars!

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist