(CNN) — When “Cocaine Bear” ads started going viral, the immediate question was whether this was another one of those titles in search of a movie (see “Snakes on a Plane”) or an idea worthy of a ticket. The answer lies somewhere in between, as director Elizabeth Banks conjures bursts of absurdist energy and humor without delivering anything approaching a sustained rush.
Although “Snakes” comes to mind among killer-animal comedies, the more germane comparison might be “Lake Placid,” which found laughs and scares in the rampage of a giant alligator. “Bear” doesn’t achieve that level of wit, but it does ratchet up the gore factor with limbs occasionally flying in all directions, those body parts looking a whole lot more realistic than the bear itself.
Indeed, despite being (very loosely) inspired by true events, and an errant shipment of cocaine lost in the Georgia woods in the mid-1980s, the movie bears about as much resemblance to those facts as the often-cartoonish-looking ursa does to something you might see in a David Attenborough documentary. At times, it feels like all that’s missing is a hat and fondness for picnic baskets instead of cocaine.
As we’ve witnessed in other movies that employ movie magic to replicate present-day animals (as opposed to, say, monsters or dinosaurs), the bear might be unstoppable, but shoddy CGI renderings can halt a movie in its tracks. Small wonder this “Bear” is most effective when it’s in the vicinity but you don’t actually see it, sort of like the early parts of “Jaws” without that John Williams score.
Written (that is, creatively embellished) by Jimmy Warden, the film derives a degree of its humor from sheer goofiness, introducing a bunch of actors in smallish roles that make everyone potentially expendable.
So there’s Keri Russell as a mom trying to find her hooky-playing kid; Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo”) and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as employees of the drug dealer (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles) dispatched to locate the missing coke; Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a cop seeking the same; and Margo Martindale as a park ranger with amorous designs on a visiting biologist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
The problem with that template is nobody really registers until they become potential bear food. Already an apex predator, this chemically enhanced bear possesses extraordinary abilities and appetites, with the only means of escaping those slavering jaws being to distract the addicted beast with even more cocaine.
Exploitation fare has its place, and nobody can accuse “Cocaine Bear” of taking itself too seriously. But there’s still a sense that practically all the good stuff — including a sequence where the titular star chases an ambulance — is in the coming attractions, and the movie’s “elevator pitch” has exhausted its novelty before the car reaches the ground floor.
The genre does reflect an expansion of Banks’ directing resume after “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Charlie’s Angels,” and the film only runs about 95 minutes, so the filmmakers were wise enough not to overly stretch an already-thin premise beyond its limitations.
Then again, Universal, which is releasing the movie, recently enjoyed another low-budget horror hit with the meme-worthy “M3GAN,” which has already spawned plans for a sequel. To the extent wandering around the woods being menaced by an unconvincing bear doesn’t cost much either, even a modicum of success will probably unleash a Cocaine Bear Cinematic Universe.
If so, give the kudos more to the concept than the movie, which mostly demonstrates, with apologies to an old marketing slogan, that things don’t always go better with coke.
“Cocaine Bear” premieres in US theaters on February 24. It’s rated R.
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