If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise – this high-concept monster movie is the most shamelessly fun film to come along in ages.
Having finally watched Cocaine Bear – the whole thing rather than just the trailer that we enjoyed an age ago – I’m still rather baffled about what it is. It feels like a film that wants to be one thing while at the same time keeping the possibility open of becoming something else, a movie that at one moment is very much aware of its own ludicrousness and is reveling in it, and at the next moment taking itself oddly seriously, flitting between these two extremes sometimes continually during a single scene. It seems to want to go in one direction but then pulls back from the outright lunacy that it really needs to carry it through, before finally deciding ‘fuck it’ and going all out with its central madness. There is a good argument for saying that this film is a mess. Yet somehow, all of this works. I enjoyed Cocaine Bear more than any film that I can think of that was released in recent years and I appreciate both what it is and, just as importantly, what it refuses to be.
Modern cinema – mainstream cinema, the sort of thing you might not actually see in a cinema but which is always the product of major studios and/or chin-strokingly ‘elevated’ filmmakers – seems so obsessed with being on-message that it force-feeds it to you like a foie gras farmer with a duck, lest you be too stupid to Understand the Subtext. I’m not against films having something to say, but frankly, modern movies are not saying anything especially contentious to anyone beyond the most virulently far-right racist homophobe, and for filmmakers to practically swagger about slapping themselves on the back for their bravery and white-knighting feels incredibly annoying and condescending. I feel rather relieved when a film like Cocaine Bear comes along and just gets on with it without having to telegraph just how progressive it is. Yes, it has Strong Female Characters but it assumes, sensibly, that this is not a big deal or a major surprise for audiences in 2023. Sure, one of those Strong Female Characters is the titular bear, but here’s the point – the film is not preaching, it’s just taking it as read that we won’t find this at all exceptional and so don’t need that message forced home. There’s a lack of pretension and finger-wagging here and I’m glad that Elizabeth Banks got to make this after her not-very-good Charlie’s Angels, a film that came with a lot of baggage – some fair, some not – about it being a feminist reboot and which didn’t have the humour, self-awareness or sheer sense of joy that the previous films had and which might’ve silenced the sexist detractors immediately rather than adding fuel to their fire. Cocaine Bear has all those elements – and admittedly has none of the problems of a pre-existing franchise – and shows her as the director that she said at the time she wanted to be, someone simply making full-on action movies that are not pushing any sort of agenda.
I do wonder what a film like Cocaine Bear will do for her directing career. It seems an odd choice for someone who is in the studio system, but then it seems an odd film to emerge from a major studio anyway. You hear ‘Cocaine Bear’ as a title and surely you’ll immediately be thinking of other high-concept, low-budget monster movies of the last couple of decades where someone has clearly come up with a title first and then crafted something quick, cheap and trashy around it. You know, Sharknado, Sharktopus, Sharkwhateverthefuckelse, Mega Piranha, Tyrannowasps (I may have just made that up), all that stuff made by Roger Corman or SyFy and the like, with cheap-as-chips CGI and just enough self-awareness to be able to laugh at itself, making criticism essentially pointless. I enjoy a lot of these films – though not the ones that seem to oddly lack any sense of humour, of which there are unfortunately many – because what is there not to enjoy? Even the variable CGI monsters – which is something that Cocaine Bear also has, the quality of the bear very much depending on the individual scene – add to the fun. CGI hasn’t quite managed to achieve the charm of a man-in-a-monster suit or even the tackier puppets, stop-motion and animatronics, but I’m willing to admit that I just think that because I’m an old fart. And Cocaine Bear has the three things that make the best of these films work: entertainingly eccentric characters that you actually enjoy spending time with; a knowing sense of humour; and a series of fantastic set-pieces designed to get the audience cheering, laughing or just shaking their heads in disbelief. The scene that was the tipping point of the trailer, with the bear ludicrously launching itself at the fleeing ambulance, is somehow even better in the full film and seems to mark a turning point where everything from now on will be delirious. Not exactly non-stop, because the film definitely pauses for breath, but by this point we’ve met all our characters, allowing their sometimes rather long-winded back stories to be dealt with, and now we can just get on with it.
Those back stories and the rather cluttered cast are what seemed most likely to overturn the film early on. There’s nothing bad there as such, but it’s hard juggling several characters and four or five plot lines that sometimes feel either too broadly comedic or too completely straight-faced to work, especially in a film that barely even bothers with any sort of origin for the Cocaine Bear itself – we meet the crazed bear early on and are just left to put two and two together ourselves, even if the narrative becomes more obvious as we go along. Hey, it’s called Cocaine Bear – do we really need any more explanation? Though ostensibly based on a true story, the film plays fast and loose with the facts – the real-life bear that found a stash of abandoned cocaine simply ate it until it died, which is probably a bit of a downer and certainly not something that you can base an entire movie on – and seems to be set in some sort of time-loop that could be any point between the 1970s and now. It opens with a D.B Cooper lookalike tossing his bales of coke out of a crashing plane before jumping himself, as Jefferson Starship’s Jane blasts on the soundtrack, and dammit if the film didn’t immediately have me there – it would’ve needed to screw up massively to blow it after this. That, of course, suggests the Seventies, but it’s officially set in 1985. Does it matter? Not at all.
There is a lot of fun – eventually – to be had with the eccentric characters who subvert expectations, especially Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) – the son of drug dealer Syd White – who is manically depressed over a failed marriage, and his colleague Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr), both of whom have been sent on a hopeless mission to recover the drugs for Syd (Ray Liotta). The double act of Eddie and Daveed is fun enough to justify its own sequel, while Liotta – in his final role – is both sinister and pathetic as the drug lord who is himself under threat from the people who supplied him with the missing cocaine. Also in the mix are local delinquent Stache (Aaron Holliday) and Sari (Keri Russell), whose daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and school friend Henry (Christian Convery) have encountered the bear early on and who play a significant part in the finale. As children go, these two turn out to be surprisingly unannoying after their early scenes where they seem to be a royal pain in the ass, a comment that could just as easily be made about most of the central characters I suppose. And the bear herself… well, the fact that she is female is actually important for the narrative development and the film avoids the standard monster movie denouement to offer a certain hope for all concerned (well, nearly all) and the sort of happy ending that seems rather fitting for a film that is having a lot of fun.
I have no idea if Elizabeth Banks or writer Jimmy Warden were familiar with William Girdler’s Grizzly, which was itself not the first film to deal with a rampaging rogue bear, but certainly the best until this point. You can see what might be knowing visual nods here and there, but then again just how different are films about killer bears in the American forests going to look? For all I know, they might be referencing Claws. Nevertheless, this is a film that feels as though it belongs to the monster movie world of yesteryear, the post-Jaws animal attack films and nature gone wild pulp fiction that was once so popular but which has generally fallen out of fashion unless those monsters are mutant hybrids owing more to the 1950s. Cocaine Bear has a high concept, true, but the drugs are only an excuse, much like pollution or radiation or whatever else triggered those movie monsters of the past. It feels refreshingly old-fashioned and unpretentious in that sense, the first of its sort since Dick Maas’ Prey a few years back which came and went without anyone noticing. I suppose The Meg might fall into that category as well, now that I think about it, even though that film always seemed a bit too po-faced for all its attempts to pretend otherwise. Cocaine Bear also struggles to find its tone for a while, but once it does, you can feel a burst of confidence kick in, as if everyone involved finally realised that a movie like this does not need to either be grimly serious or smirkingly satirical – it can just exist in its own little universe of absurdity.
I don’t know what the success of Cocaine Bear – which has made more money than was expected – might do for the monster movie (apart from spawning Cocaine Shark, obviously) but I hope we get to see more films that have this lack of pomposity and sense of fun – movies that are genuinely smart rather than movies that think they are. If the existence of this film points to the majors once again climbing onto a bandwagon created by indie mavericks, I’m all for it. And honestly, if Elizabeth Banks somehow carved out a career making modern exploitation movies after this, I’d be down with that too. It might not be how she saw her career going but she’s very good at it and there are worse things to do as a filmmaker and in these shitty and uncertain times, we all need a bit of escapist cinema that isn’t absorbed in shouting at us or trying to prove how much smarter than the viewer it is.
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