Movie Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Cast: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Christain Convery, Brooklynn Prince, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ray Liotta, character actor Margo Martindale

Plot: A drug dealer dumps a large shipment of cocaine over a national park and subsequently dies attempting to parachuting out. A black bear gets into the cocaine and sets out on a bloody rampage.

Review: Elizabeth Banks needs to go to film school. This isn’t some cheeky bit of hyperbole, because in every one of her projects we’ve seen there’s been a shockingly poor demonstration of film-making basics. When you’re spending tens of millions of dollars making a movie you should at the very least complete a 101 in basic techniques like shot continuity, the 180 degree rule, narrative progression, composing your shots to draw the eye the right way and considering the off-screen space. There’s not a scene that goes by without an example of sloppy planning and scene construction.

It’s around here that this review is going to be dismissed by most people because I have clearly missed the point. This is a dumb fun, silly movie that I shouldn’t be taking so seriously. Two points in response. First, this movie is going to be a smash right out the gate based on the premise and the viral marketing but is going to have no enduring legacy because it’s a mess. Secondly, this movie cost almost twice as much as Everything Everywhere All At Once. Using a solid understanding of film-making and creativity, the Daniels made a movie that is visually stunning, emotionally resonant, packed full of whacky action and filled with career best performances. Not every film-maker can create something that unique and special, but for that much money you’d expect basic competence. Cocaine Bear can’t even keep track of where its characters are.

Here’s some examples of how sloppily this movie is made. We have three criminal characters who arrive at the national park, have some interactions and head out towards a gazebo where some drugs are stashed. It appears that they’ve been walking for hours, as we keep cutting back to them having long conversations. They have a guide, so they’re going straight there. Then there’s an out of shape cop who arrives at the park much later, isn’t specifically heading to the gazebo but just generally searching the area…and somehow gets to the gazebo FIRST. How does that happen? Well, it shouldn’t. That’s either bad writing, bad editing or a combination of both. An out-of-shape, wheezy-while-he-walks cop shouldn’t get to the location before the guys who left earlier and went straight there with a guide.

This kind of thing happens over and over again. It doesn’t matter where we last saw any character or the bear, because they’ll simply teleport into the next scene as needed. It also happens within scenes, with characters zipping about the off-screen space with no logic.

On top of that, we’ve got some story-telling decisions that are simply confounding. There’s a corrupt cop character who turns up late in the film, hangs around for a brief couple of scenes before she decides to go home. She just…leaves. When your entire movie is based around a psychotic bear ripping people apart, it’s perplexing that you’d have a character just leave the story instead of being given a creative death scene. (Although she leaves first, and the remaining characters have a been finale encounter and action sequence later, she arrives back at the carpark at the same time as them, because of course. This kind of thing just keeps happening.) Considering some characters turn up just to be killed in a hilarious way next scene, it’s weird this one character will just decide to exit the movie without fuss.

One delinquent teen character turns up, has a whole establishing scene, and then it’s one of his random friends who has a larger role throughout the film. Why not start with the one who’ll be relevant later? One character is based on a real person, and has their real name, but everything about their situation, what happened to them and what the consequences are is changed. Why keep the real name if you’re changing everything about them? It feels as though no thought was put into this project at any point.

Even the opening scene, which shows a drug smuggler throwing bags of cocaine out of his plane before jumping out themselves, is so confusing that we can’t work out why he’s doing any of it. The plane could be failing, or he’s staging a crash to get away with the drugs…it’s very unclear. He’s happy and dancing, but it’s suggested there’s something wrong with the plane, but he was a real person and in real life the plane was on auto-pilot? We just can’t work it out, and this is the inciting incident for the entire movie.

The next scene of the movie introduces a couple of throw away tourist characters who are the first to fall victim to the titular Cocaine Bear. We get a real good look at the bear at it dances around, head-butts a tree and then chases them for an attack. Half an hour later, we get out next bear attack scene, but this time the bear is hidden or behind bushes as it grabs people and pulls them off-screen. This is how you structure your scene if the monster hasn’t been seen by the audience yet, and you want to build up the anticipation to a big reveal. But it doesn’t make sense if WE’VE ALREADY SEEN THE MONSTER. We have seen it TWICE at this point, and yet Banks treats this like we’re building up to a first appearance.

Even pointing the camera in the right direction feels like a struggle for the director. Take a simple scene of two men talking in a car when the camera cuts back and forth between them. It doesn’t sound like something that should challenge a film-maker…and yet…the character on the right is always positioned in the far left of the frame, while the character on the left is always positioned in the middle of the screen. When the camera cuts back and forth, you find your eyes are always in the wrong spot, and you have to look in the wrong direction to where the characters are sitting. This is a consistent failing through the whole movie.

There’s a bunch of good actors with great comedic timing in this movie, but it’s not worth much when the editing has all the rhythm of a drum kit in a car crusher. It could work with the gory shock value, but there’s very few moments where the death scenes are treated with any creativity or style. It’s usually just a severed limb dumped in front of the camera lens. Horror fans aren’t going to see anything that hasn’t been done dozens of times (except for the bit with character actor Margo Martindale). Cocaine Bear has a fantastic premise for an off-the-wall gore-fest, but it doesn’t push any envelopes, do anything creative and is overall a bad example of simple film-making.

Here’s hoping that after Charlie’s Angels and Cocaine Bear, Elizabeth Banks enrols in a film-making course. $40million could go a long way towards giving talented, upcoming indie film-makers the chance to give us something new. Instead, it goes towards a movie that I anticipate using as an example of how not to set-up and shoot a simple scene in future classes. The viral marketing will give it a solid opening weekend, but in a year it will be completely forgotten.

Rating: TWO out of TEN