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‘Cocaine Bear’ review: We have strayed far away from a wholesome Berenstain Bears story

Loosely based on a 1985 case, ‘Cocaine Bear’ provides plenty of drugs, dismembered limbs, and calamity that often falters.

Let’s skip over all the formalities – Cocaine Bear knows precisely what you expect from it. You came for the mayhem, the laughs, and, quite frankly, a drugged-up bear using humans as its personal food platter. Well, once it gets going, it delivers on the mayhem; some of the jokes are hit or miss, and the bear is hungry in more ways than one. While we’re not expecting a Charles Dickens adaptation, there is some fun in director Elizabeth Banks’ 80s-style horror comedy. In a part of the film, the bear utilizes the powdery drug much like Popeye does spinach. At that point, you’ll realize Cocaine Bear is ready to take its place in the hall of champions of films like Sharknado and Megapiranha.

Yes, the film is based on a 1985 story where drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II dumped bags of cocaine near the state line between Georgia and Tennessee. Thornton fell to his death, attempting to parachute from the plane in Knoxville. Authorities then found a dead black bear near many opened packages of cocaine in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. Through the magic of Hollywood, the bear nicknamed Pablo EskoBear didn’t perish at all. Much to the dismay of the Reagan anti-drug commercials at the beginning of Cocaine Bear, the bear in question consumes cocaine packages like video game power-ups.

Banks and writer Jimmy Warden know there has to be a natural way to get characters to interact with the main character. It’s not like the bear can come down to the city. So, different scenarios are introduced with varying degrees of success. Sari (Keri Russell) is a single mother who is a nurse with her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince). Dee Dee wants to paint a waterfall in the forest, so she gets her best friend, Henry (Christian Convery), to ditch school and go on an adventure. There’s the question of the cocaine itself that ornery boss Syd (played by the late Ray Liotta) has tasked Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve.

These groups have other characters that splinter them into different segments. Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) eventually investigates the cocaine drop – but not before the film establishes he has an affinity for his new fluffy adoption dog. Park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) is gearing up alone with staunch animal rights champion Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). However, a group of unruly male teenagers and Sari’s frantic look for the children impede that.

Every person in Cocaine Bear plays a different role that is not defined more than the apparent motivations. Sure, Daveed has his own gripes on not trying to get his Jordans or jersey dirty. Eddie is grieving the loss of his wife and has to, unfortunately, dawn a tattoo on his chest that misspells his name. It’s about getting to the CGI bear willing to rip people’s limbs off with reckless abandon. Banks channels a Sam Raimi spirit by trying to tie in suspense, and gore, then snap back into a comedic cadence. By the third kill, the novelty starts to wear off, and the weight of the one-liners begins to show.

In its third act, Cocaine Bear tries to tie in a feel-good family moment – which is odd for a film with plenty of drugs and varying displays of dismemberment. The film’s attempts at clawing for something deeper almost hurts its propensity for absurdity. Unhinged bears right now are having their moment in cinema. If you’re already dreading coming up against one on a random camping trip, films like the twisted re-imaging of Winnie the Pooh might give more reasons to pause (or cackle in laughter).

The beginning coda of Cocaine Bear gives Wikipedia tips on what humans should do if they encounter a black bear – tools that the opening victims immediately do not do. You have to admire the commitment to making a story like this into a feature film. With that, the unhinged nature of it doesn’t fill out all the crevices it hopes.