The 1980s was a decade notorious for its excesses, notably in the arena of narcotics. Over here in Blighty, Zammo McGuire was totally whacked off his noggin on heroin in Grange Hill, which resulted in a campaigning single, plus a trip Stateside to the White House for a crossover with the American ‘War On Drugs’ movement, being championed by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan. Heck, one of the most popular videogames of the era even involved dashing around swallowing pills. Yes, it was a high old time, to be sure.
Right smack bang in the midst of the Eighties came a curious skirmish in the drugs war, as a smuggler dropped a shipment of 40 containers’ worth of cocaine from a Cessna while flying over Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. It happened as the load was too heavy for the plane, but the smuggler – Andrew C. Thornton II – never lived to retrieve his valuable cargo, as his parachute failed to open after he bailed out and ditched the aircraft, with his body being found on a driveway in Tennessee.
A few months on, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found the body of a black bear which came across the contraband, and ingested in the region of $2 million worth. The carcass was taxidermied, and after having originally been gifted to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, turned up in a pawn shop, from where it was purchased by the singer Waylon Jennings, ultimately ending up in the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, where it still resides, proudly standing as their unlikely mascot.
This rather fanciful-sounding – yet completely true – story is the jumping off point for Elizabeth Banks’ latest picture, Cocaine Bear. Only instead of the forest dwelling ursid just shuffling off quietly with a stomachful of high grade Charlie, this fictionalised take on the tale sees the titular animal on a wild, drug-fuelled killing spree, courtesy of the film’s writer, Jimmy Warden, who has spun events off in this blood soaked, fantastical direction. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods… Think Jaws, only much furrier. ‘Paws’, if you like.
In Warden’s script, we see disparate groups of people being drawn into the National Park for various reasons, their paths crossing at various points along the way. We have a working single mom (Keri Russell), on the trail of her daughter and a school friend, who have both played truant and gone into the wilderness to visit a waterfall. A drugs kingpin (Ray Liotta), who sends his grieving, bereaved son (Alden Ehrenreich) as well as one of his flunkies to retrieve the cocaine from out of the mountains, before taking things into his own hands.
Then you also have the veteran cop, who is heading up the investigation into locating the same valuable consignment, while at the same time worrying about his new dog. We also have a pair of foreign hikers, here on a walking holiday. Two paramedics, answering a 911 call. Three young thugs, intent on petty thieving and mayhem. Plus a Park Ranger and her supervisor, who is the object of her affections. Throw into the mix a 175-pound, coked-up Pablo Escobear, and there is most definitely trouble a-bruin…
Cocaine Bear certainly delivers exactly what it promises on the poster, with the end product being a trail of bloody and visceral carnage, which is in equal turns both horrifying and hilarious. 1985 is perfectly recreated, without ever ending up in the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ kind of OTT nostalgia porn which has been employed by the likes of Wonder Woman 1984, and turned its depiction of the era into a walking cliche. In addition, Cocaine Bear also perfectly evokes the spirit of the Eighties slasher movies, although the perpetrator here is somewhat less supernatural. The score by Mark Mothersbaugh is pure, synth-laden perfection, and it perfectly adds to the overall vibe.
In 2010, the notoriously vocabulary-mangling Sarah Palin managed to enter the term ‘Mama grizzly’ into the lexicon, and although she had used it with a very politically-based meaning, you could arguably say that it applies here to Keri Russell’s character, Sari. Starting out as an unassuming and seemingly unremarkable type, she rises to the occasion as she finds her ‘cubs’ (daughter Dee Dee, and Dee Dee’s best friend Henry) are in peril, and proves herself as being more than capable of handling any threats, be they either human or animal.
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Alden Ehrenreich manages to step out of the shadow unfairly cast over him by having been embroiled in the unseemly row over playing the lead in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and brings a real vulnerability to the part of Eddie, showing the disdain he feels as the son of a drugs lord, trying to bring up his own kid after losing his wife. As for said drugs lord, while it might not be the particular project which Ray Liotta would have picked to be his last movie, having been taken from us in 2022, he is still on top form here. In fact, Cocaine Bear is a perfectly fine bookend to Liotta’s career.
Cocaine Bear sure is a rollercoaster ride, chock full of laughs, suspense, gore, but also surprising sensitivity at times. Even though it was released just two months into 2023, this may yet be one of the big successes of the year, delivering all that an audience could possibly want, as well as giving Banks yet another feather in the cap of her growing directorial career. If you go down to the cinema today, then you’re sure of a big surprise, with this winning black (bear) comedy romp sure to please the grizzliest of viewers.
Cocaine Bear is out now at cinemas.