24 Lies a Second: Ursine o' the Times

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Ursine o' the Times

There is no clearer evidence that the cinematic seasons have changed than the fact that theatres are playing host to a film like Cocaine Bear. Anything with a name like Cocaine Bear is obviously never going to win an award (at least, not the kind of reward you'd actually want to win), which is why it's not coming out in the winter. On the other hand, it's never going to make a billion dollars, either, which is why it's not coming out in the summer. So films like Cocaine Bear come out in the spring and autumn, and – with luck – do okay for themselves there.

Or so the received wisdom has it. The director of Cocaine Bear, Elizabeth Banks, was most recently in charge of the 'weaponised feminism' remake of Charlie's Angels, which did not do very well in an admittedly crowded pre-Christmas market. I have come to have a certain respect for Banks, who tends to turn up attached to unexpectedly interesting or subversive films more often than you might expect, but the Charlie's Angels movie was simply not very good. But what are the chances of a film with a title like Cocaine Bear being any better? One thing is fairly certain: there's not going to be much weaponised feminism on the agenda this time around.

Never before have the words 'Based on true events, but certain characters and situations have been fictionalised' constituted such a massive understatement as they do on this occasion. The facts of the matter are this: in 1985, an ex-lawyer turned drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton died in a parachuting accident after dumping a significant quantity of cocaine out of his plane over Georgia. Several months later, the body of a black bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, apparently having overdosed on the abandoned drugs.

Pretty slim pickings there for all but the most inventive documentary film-maker, you might have thought, but the film makes the reasonable extrapolation that, somewhere along the line, the coked-up bear might have gone on a gory rampage and killed half a dozen or so people unlucky enough to cross its path. At a stroke the story is transformed from niche piece of bizarre Americana to a functional horror movie, something along the lines of Grizzly (or possibly Winnie-the-Pooh) meets Scarface, albeit still with that bizarre Americana element attached to it.

One slightly odd creative choice is that we don't actually see the bear eat the cocaine. We see Thornton himself (Matthew Rhys) throwing brick after brick of the stuff from his plane (it may just be me not paying attention, but the film doesn't completely explain why he's doing this in the first place) and then failing to parachute successfully from it, and we see a couple of European tourists coming across the bear acting rather erratically. I suppose this is just so the film can get to the good stuff more quickly. This duly happens: the bear pursues the tourists and the body-parts begin to fly. (As you can see, Cocaine Bear is quite assiduous in sticking to most of the traditional horror movie conventions: in this case, some early gore.)

It soon becomes apparent that this isn't just a horror movie about an animal with a substance abuse problem, it's the work of people who appreciate just what an offbeat premise that is and take it about as seriously as it deserves. And so a diverse group of characters yomp off into the woods, little suspecting they are in for a big surprise: a couple of tweenies who are acting out, pursued by the mother of one of them (Keri Russell); a veteran cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr); a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and a wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); and a drug dealer (O'Shea Jackson Jr) in search of the actual cocaine, accompanied by the unwilling son (Alden Ehrenreich) of his boss (Ray Liotta). Most of these characters have weird preoccupations that have nothing to do with the usual horror movie concerns – unlikely crushes, misspelt tattoos, dog adoption crises, and so on – which just adds to the sense this is on some level a parody, or one of those relentlessly ironic films like Snakes on a Plane or Hobo with a Shotgun.

To be honest, it probably is that sort of a film, but made with unusual proficiency – it has the same sort of 'this is horrible, why am I laughing?' effect as many early projects by James Gunn, someone whom Elizabeth Banks has worked with several times in the past (I should say that Gunn wasn't involved personally). Also with their names on the credits are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, well-known for the Lego movies and getting fired half-way through making the Han Solo spin-off film (maybe they brought Ehrenreich along with them). The result is a film which is slick, confident, and often very funny.

What it isn't, and this is not that unusual in this sort of territory, is particularly scary. There's a certain amount of tension early on as the bear lurks around off-screen, but once the film starts picking up momentum it seems much more interested in inventive and extravagant gore – I believe the name for this sort of thing is 'splatstick'. I should say there is enough significant nastiness in this film for it to warrant a flag as far as delicate viewers ar concerned.

Nevertheless, it always simply feels like a really odd little film – comprehensively odd, odd in all kinds of strange ways. Even some of the production details are weird – apparently it was filmed on location in Ireland, which you would never guess from looking at it. There's something quite weird about the fact that Ray Liotta makes the first of his posthumous appearances in a film as nutty as this one, even though he's playing an extremely Ray Liotta-ish character. I suppose the oddest thing about it is that it is such an intentional piece of junk cinema, given all the talent and skill involved in making it. I'm not going to get too exercised about that, as cinema needs quality junk as much as it does films from any other genre, nor am I going to echo the sentiments of the person (I forget who) who got quite irate about a film in such obviously poor taste (let's not forget, an actual bear did die of a drugs overdose). Of course it's in poor taste; that's kind of the point.

In the end, it's a spring genre movie, and a reasonably good one; we laughed a lot at it, though it's true that we mainly went to see it because Creed III wasn't out till the following week. It's about as good as you could expect a film called Cocaine Bear about a bear with a drugs habit on a homicidal rampage to realistically be, and if that has the air of faint praise about it – well, that probably goes with the territory too.

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