‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: Elizabeth Banks Turns a Bizarre True Story Into a Brilliant Binge of Comedy-Horror

A distinguished ensemble finds itself face to face with a speed-freak apex predator

Cocaine Bear

The success of any horror-comedy can be measured by the number of laughs and screams it elicits. If it coaxes them simultaneously, so much the better.

By that measure, “Cocaine Bear” is a bloody marvel, an extrapolation of a one-line “weird news” story — bear dies by stuffing itself with cocaine tossed from a smuggler’s plane — into a brilliant comedy of errors and terrors.

Cocaine itself has, of course, been responsible for the creation of countless terrible screenplays, but as an inciting incident, mixed with the jaws-and-claws of a fearsome black bear, it provides a distinguished ensemble the opportunity to be (depending on the character) brave, cowardly, heroic, venal, crafty, panicky or, ultimately, dinner.

It’s 1985, and a drug smuggler (Matthew Rhys) tosses duffel after duffel packed with cocaine onto the Blood Mountain region of Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest from a low-flying plane. When the time comes for him to jump, however, he bumps his head and plummets without a parachute, landing head-first on a driveway in Kentucky.

The accident immediately captures the attention of policeman Bob (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and St. Louis drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen roles). Syd, under pressure from his Colombian co-conspirators sends his lieutenant Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the coke and insists that Daveed take Syd’s son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) along, even though Eddie is still grief-stricken over the recent death of his wife and wants to get out of the family business.

Meanwhile — and there’s a lot of “meanwhile” in this movie — schoolgirl Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, “The Florida Project”) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery, “Playing With Fire”) play hooky and go into the park, sending Dee Dee’s mom, nurse Sari (Keri Russell) after them; park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) spritzes on perfume for a visit from wildlife inspector Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, near-unrecognizable in an absurd wig); and various hikers and teen punks find their own reasons to be in the area. What none of them realize is that a black bear has consumed various bricks of cocaine and will do anything (and go through anyone) to get more of it.

Screenwriter Jimmy Warden (“The Babysitter: Killer Queen”) gives the characters varying degrees of recognizably human idiocy, so we’re never entirely sure who’s going to outwit the titular creature and who’s going to get mauled. While many of them seem cartoonish at first, they’re dimensional enough to provide surprises throughout, whether it’s one of the teen punks turning out to be an empathetic shoulder to cry on for Eddie or one of several unexpected character-based twists.

Director Elizabeth Banks — whose underappreciated 2019 take on “Charlie’s Angels” cries out for critical reassessment — once again shows her skill at balancing tone. “Cocaine Bear” never sacrifices the laughs for dramatic tension, nor vice versa, and those are very tricky plates to spin over the course of a feature film. Editor Joel Negron (“Thor: Ragnarok”) deserves praise for maintaining the hilarity and the suspense while also juggling so many characters and their relative locations.

The Reagan-era period details, from the needle-drops to costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri’s wardrobe selections (Eddie’s robin’s-egg-blue Members Only jacket, Sari’s pink jumpsuit), feel appropriate without being overbearing, much like Mark Mothersbaugh’s witty but strategically-placed score.

Like the recent “M3GAN,” this is a high-concept horror movie that understands its own absurdity but never lets it get entirely in the way of its darker intentions. “Cocaine Bear” is a thrilling binge of adrenaline that you won’t regret in the morning.

“Cocaine Bear” opens in US theaters Feb. 24 via Universal Pictures.