My hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee is a pretty quiet place. We have our share of crime, as any midsize city does. Most of it is usually property or drug related. There are murders as well. Back in the 1970’s, a mutilated torso was found with that murder still unsolved. In 1986, another torso was found and over the course of a few weeks, the rest of the body parts and the implements of dismemberment were discovered. An ID of the victim led to his roommates who were later convicted of the grisly crime. But in 1985, one of the most bizarre deaths in the city’s history took place on the driveway of an 85-year-old man. The body of Andrew C. Thornton II was found by the elderly homeowner on the morning of September 11. Thornton was flying packaged cocaine from Columbia into the United States. He dumped the load of drugs because the plane of overweight and having a hard time staying in the air. Thornton strapped on a parachute, and about 75 lbs. of cocaine, and jumped. The parachute malfunctioned and Thornton died on impact in the driveway of 85-year-old Fred Myers. His unpiloted plane crashed 60 miles away in the mountains of North Carolina. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured by the falling cocaine, the doomed pilot and the unoccupied aircraft. Actually, that’s not exactly true, as a dead black bear was discovered two months later. His demise was caused by a massive cocaine overdose. The bear discovered the discarded drugs and had a one-creature party. A necropsy on the bear found his stomach was stuffed to the brim with the powdered drug. The bear was taxidermied and, after a multi-decade circuitous route, is now on display in the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. Aside from the infrequent remembrances on the anniversary the discovery of Thornton’s body, not many would remember the events of that day or the death of a coked-up bruin. However, director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden want us all to remember a slightly different version in the new film “Cocaine Bear.”
Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) abandons his airplane after dumping his load of cocaine over northern Georgia. While jumping out, he bangs his head on the doorframe and is rendered unconscious, falling uncontrollably to his death in a driveway in Knoxville, TN. A Knoxville police detective named Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) knows Thornton works for a St. Louis-based drug dealer named Syd (Ray Liotta). He also knows the drug pilots dump their loads over the Chattahoochee National Forest. He decides to travel there and try to catch Syd or his people gathering up their product. Syd sends Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) along with Syd’s son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve the drugs and not get in trouble with the cartel. Nurse Sari (Keri Russell) is picking up extra shifts at the hospital, much to the annoyance of her 12-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Dee Dee wants to see the waterfalls in the nearby Chattahoochee National Park. She skips school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) and they walk to the park. Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) is preparing for a visit from Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a park inspector and someone on whom she has a crush. Sari comes home after her shift and gets a phone call from the school telling her Dee Dee is absent. She quickly figures out where her daughter is going and sets off to find her. Everyone is heading into the path of a black bear that has discovered the discarded drugs, consumed a great deal of them, and is on a coke-fueled rampage.
I don’t think anyone going to see “Cocaine Bear” is expecting art. It’s a silly action/comedy/gore film about a drug-addicted bear and the death and mayhem it causes. Still, director Elizabeth Banks has managed to deliver something a bit more in the film. We get foul-mouthed kids, a mourning drug dealer, familial strife, corruption, romance and dismemberments. This mix shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but “Cocaine Bear” manages to be a very entertaining film.
The large ensemble cast is a diverse bunch, from cute kids to and an overworked single mom to hardened drug dealers. The group, split into subgroups as they go about their intertwining missions, are never far removed from the titular bear. It makes frequent, usually violent but sometimes also funny, appearances at regular enough intervals to keep the audience’s attention. A section of the film devoted to the search for one of the kids is split up enough with bear scenes to keep it from dragging the pace of the film to a crawl. A subplot involving one character’s dog is kept to a minimum, preventing unnecessary delays to the next scene of bear carnage. The film is structured in nice, compact segments that are neither too long nor too short.
Not everything in “Cocaine Bear” works to perfection. O’Shea Jackson, Jr.’s Daveed starts the film hard but softens over the course of the story. This doesn’t feel like an earned redemption. Working for Syd the drug kingpin feels like it should be the kind of job that could get you killed at any time, making for a personality that looks to strike the first blow and murder at the slightest provocation. Daveed, while tough, takes pity on several characters he should kill without a second thought.
Ray Liotta’s Syd also doesn’t feel like a fully thought-out character. He enlists his son, Ehrenreich’s Eddie, to go with Daveed to gather the drugs, despite Eddie leaving the family business after his wife dies. Syd should also be willing to eliminate even his own son if he’s not going to follow orders. For a film filled with violent deaths at the hands, or paws, of a bear, the humans don’t live up to their character’s reputations. While Syd does kill one person, it’s from a distance and does more to move the story forward than it makes sense for the character. These are minor quibbles, but the movie could have risen even further above its exploitative roots with more attention paid to the characters.
“Cocaine Bear” is rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout. There are numerous dismemberments, at least one beheading, people being dragged screaming into bushes and more by the bear. A wrist of a person is broken so badly by the bear the hand is only connected by skin. There is also a stabbing, beatings and shootings by humans. One character is shot in the head with their brains and blood splattering on others in the room. Another character is shot in the belly. Children are shown experimenting with cocaine, but it is entirely for comic effect. The bear is the biggest user in the movie. Foul language is common throughout.
No one will walk away from “Cocaine Bear” with a new outlook on life. It is meant to be an escapist popcorn movie that will only live on in your memory for as long as it takes you to leave the theater and walk to your car. Seeing it with a group of likeminded friends is probably the best way to get the most enjoyment out of it. While the ending may give a small tug on the heartstrings, “Cocaine Bear” is mostly about the gore and the laughs. In that aspect, the film is an acceptable high.
“Cocaine Bear” gets four stars out of five.
Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.