(CNN) — When the “Cocaine Bear” ads started running go viral, the immediate question was whether it was another one of those titles looking for a movie (see “Snakes on a Plane”) or an entry-worthy idea. The answer lies somewhere in between, as director Elizabeth Banks manages bursts of silly energy and humor without offering anything approaching sustained momentum.
Although “Snakes” comes to mind among killer animal comedies, the most apt comparison might be “Lake Placid,” which found laughs and scares in the rampage of a giant alligator. “Cocaine Bear” falls short of that level of ingenuity, but it does up the gore factor with limbs occasionally flying in all directions, and those body parts look much more realistic than the bear itself.
In fact, despite being (very loosely) inspired by true events and a stray shipment of cocaine in the Georgia woods in the mid-1980s, the film is as similar to those events as the often cartoonish-looking ursa. , to something that could be seen in a David Attenborough documentary. Sometimes it seems like all that’s missing is a hat and a penchant for picnic baskets instead of cocaine.
As we’ve seen in other movies that use movie magic to reproduce actual animals (instead of, say, monsters or dinosaurs), the bear may be unstoppable, but poor CGI renderings can stop a movie in its tracks. Not surprisingly, this “Bear” is most effective when he’s around but out of sight, sort of like the early parts of “Jaws” without the John Williams score.
Written (which is to say, creatively embellished) by Jimmy Warden, the film draws some of its humor from sheer silliness, casting a group of actors in bit parts that make everyone potentially expendable.
Thus, Keri Russell plays a mother who tries to find her son who missed school; Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo”) and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as employees of the drug dealer (Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles) tasked with locating the missing cocaine; Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a cop looking for the same thing; and Margo Martindale as a ranger with a fling for a visiting biologist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
The problem with this template is that nobody notices it until it becomes potential food for the bear. Already a predator, this chemically enhanced bear possesses extraordinary abilities and appetites, and the only way to escape those ravenous jaws is to distract the addicted beast with more cocaine.
Exploitation cinema has its place, and no one can accuse “Cocaine Bear” of taking itself too seriously. But there’s still a sense that just about everything good — including a sequence in which the titular star chases an ambulance — is yet to come, and the film’s “elevator speech” has exhausted its novelty before the cab arrives. On the ground floor.
The genre reflects an expansion of Banks’s resume as a director after “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Charlie’s Angels“, and the movie is only about 95 minutes long, so the filmmakers were wise enough not to overstretch an already thin premise beyond its limitations.
Elsewhere, Universal, which is releasing the film, has recently scored another low-budget horror hit with the memorable “M3GAN“, which has already spawned plans for a sequel. Insofar as wandering through the woods under threat from a lame bear doesn’t cost much either, even a modicum of success will likely spark a “Cocaine Bear” Cinematic Universe.
If so, the concept is to be congratulated more than the film, which above all demonstrates, pardoning an old marketing slogan, that things don’t always go better with cocaine.
“Cocaine Bear” opened in US theaters on February 24. It is rated R.