Sunday, June 23, 2024

When in college during the big ’80s we’d cross the Florida peninsula at night to partake in spring break mayhem in Fort Lauderdale and Miami – gonzo road trips for a wee bit of fun. To do so we took a route through the Everglades known as Alligator Alley and were warned by locals never to stop, or at least not to dally. Why? Alligators for sure, but more so, drug dealers and other illicit types collecting bales of marijuana and duffel bags full of cocaine kicked out of prop planes to dealers camped out to retrieve them and sell to those spring breakers. Tony Montana it wasn’t, and often, as I was told, dumps were lost or intercepted by other shady sorts or the ever-prowling authorities. About the only things I ever ran into along Alligator Alley were swarms of mosquitoes and some really godawful, low-grade tequila one of my college mates insisted on drinking as pregame petrol for all in the van not taking wheel duty.

That said, such a real-life drug drop from above is the loose inspiration for “Cocaine Bear,” a devilish little diamond in the rough with cult aspirations that isn’t far off in tenor and production values from the 1990 surprise “Tremors,” starring Kevin Bacon. The drug drop is supposed to take place over Tennessee but goes awry when the plane malfunctions and starts to go down. Most of the coke lands in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, where a few kilos are snorted up by a 500-pound mama bear (we learn that the pronouns are “she/her” when she passes out on a random drug dealer who can then identify her because – well, now you get a feel for the film’s cheeky, campy edge). The bear wants more, and will kill for it, be you a wayward hiker with a little accidental dust on your leg, a drug dealer seeking to retrieve the stash because your Colombian supplier will come for you, a law enforcer trying to intercept the former or an amorous ranger with designs on the park’s goofball naturalist. There’s a potpourri of personalities and agendas swirling around this very dangerous, coked-up beast.

Directed by Pittsfield native and more often actor Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games” and “Pitch Perfect” series) making a nice rebound from her 2019 failed reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,”“Cocaine Bear” packs a lot into 90-ish minutes and hits some hilarious highs. It’s also pretty gruesome and the CGI bear is, to be kind, B-rate, which only adds to the winning camp factor. It’s a go-for-broke concept played to the wire by Banks and bolstered by a cast of deft character actors and stars outside their normal wheelhouse: Keri Russell as the mom trying to find her wayward daughter (Brooklynn Prince), who’s lost in the woods; “Modern Family” guy Jesse Tyler Ferguson; Ice Cube’s kid O’Shea Jackson Jr., so good in “Long Shot” (2019) and pretty spot on here as drug dealer’s gopher; the ever-affable Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the maverick cop out of his jurisdiction and having to deal with a pampered lap dog; Margo Martindale as the park ranger quick on the trigger; Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo”) as the dealer’s son, in tow to help retrieve the coke; Russell’s “Americans” costar Matthew Rhys in a cameo as the coke-snorting aviator who kicks the whole mess off; and the late Ray Liotta as the head heavy not looking forward to answering to his Escobar sources.

How much of it is true? Very little that we know of. In 1985 a load of coke did get lost in Tennessee, never to be recovered, and a 175-pound black bear was found dead of an overdose across the border in Georgia. That’s it – the rest is a gift from Banks and writer Jimmy Warden during the time of year studios dump their failed projects in theaters and on streaming platforms as the movie industry gears up for the Oscars and big-screen spring seasons. Due to an illness I had to scrap my plans to attend a press screening in Boston and instead caught the early Thursday show at the Somerville Theater’s large auditorium, which was a true, relaxing pleasure – navigating evening press screenings, to which media outlets and PR firms often give away promo passes to the public, can be teeming gantlets (a bear, dare I say?). I was in no mood and double happy to stay local. 


Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.