Like Jellystone Park’s most famous resident, Yogi Bear, the ursine creature in director Elizabeth Banks’s gore-soaked horror comedy is on a single-minded quest to rob people of consumable goods. In this case, however, the loot isn’t food; it’s cocaine. Before the closing credits, the titular animal will do more blow than a stockbroker on Wall Street in the 1980s.
She will also maul, maim, devour, and eviscerate anyone who stands in her way. Especially if they’re covered in, or have access to, nose candy. Banks has assembled an all-star cast for her computer-generated lead to chew on, including Felicity herself, Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson from “Modern Family,” Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., the late Ray Liotta, and character actress Margo Martindale.
This is nasty, sleazy fun that not only takes the time for us to get to know its characters, but showcases that even in an environment populated by a coked up, man-eating bear, man is still the most dangerous animal. Some of the gnarliest violence occurs when the bear isn’t onscreen.
“Cocaine Bear” takes place in 1985, the same year the true story that inspired it made the news. In Georgia, a drug smuggler dropped a duffel bag filled with dope out of his plane before falling to his death in Tennessee. A bear happened upon the bag and consumed its contents, overdosing in the process.
Jimmy Warden’s script keeps only the first part of the true story. Instead of dying, the bear becomes an instrument of death and the literal definition of a party animal. This is a tale of revenge that fits into the “Just say no to drugs” campaign of the 1980s and the rampaging animals horror film subgenre.
The villain of “Cocaine Bear” isn’t the bear. (Since she’s unnamed, let’s christen her “Cokey the Bear.”) It’s Ray Liotta’s Syd, a bigtime drug smuggler and the obsession of police lieutenant Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Liotta began his career as the villain in smutty fare like “The Lonely Lady,” so it warms my trash-loving heart that his last role is the villain here.
In the pre-credits scene, one of Syd’s employees, Thornton (played in a hilarious cameo by Keri Russell’s costar on “The Americans,” Matthew Rhys), dumps those duffel bags full of coke before accidentally killing himself. Syd sends two of his workers, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve them. He knows where they are, because the drop was part of the plan. All those duffel bags stuffed with millions of dollars of product are littering the aptly named Blood Mountain.
Meanwhile, 12-year old Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), daughter of nurse Sari (Keri Russell) decides to play hooky from school so she can spray paint the waterfall rocks on Blood Mountain. Dee Dee recruits her friend, Henry (Christian Convery). En route, they discover a ripped brick of cocaine. In a sure to be controversial scene, the two kids decide to try it. As shocking as this sounds, it’s the tamest scene in “Cocaine Bear,” and the film’s only anti-drug teachable moment.
Unlike the kids, Cokey the Bear isn’t shown snorting her first rail. She’s already high as a kite and hungrier than a hippo when she makes her debut onscreen to claim her first victim, a European hiker discussing marriage plans with her bearded boyfriend. Future bear snacks include a group of teenage robbers, some EMTs, park rangers, and a horny wildlife expert who has the unfortunate luck of being doused in cocaine while trapped in a tree.
Peter Jackson’s FX company, Weta, presents Cokey the Bear realistically, but they also surround her in gigantic, comical puffs of coke that often fly out of her snout or rain down on her from the air. The eating prey alive stuff notwithstanding, Cokey acts like the typical cocaine user. Having worked on Wall Street in the 1980s, I can tell you she’s a lot nicer, too.
“Cocaine Bear” reminded me of the grindhouse and disaster movies I saw as a kid, many of them released by this film’s distributor, Universal Pictures. Back then, they were the purveyors of movies like “Sssssss,” “The Sentinel,” and “Earthquake,” all major hunks of schlock that nurtured my undying love of trash cinema. The studio’s old logo, a grungy version of Earth spinning in space, promised that I was going to see something I probably shouldn’t enjoy, or even respect, but I was going to anyway.
Universal misses the opportunity to appropriately slap their old logo on “Cocaine Bear,” as it did for “Knock at the Cabin,” but the studio kept that logo’s promise. This is an unapologetic audience-pleaser, though it’s not for the squeamish. Say no to drugs. Say yes to “Cocaine Bear.”
Directed by Elizabeth Banks. Written by Jimmy Warden. Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Christian Convery, Brooklynn Prince, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Rhys, and Ray Liotta. 95 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburban theaters. R (drug use and gore scenes and bears, oh my).
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.