The last time a movie was marketed with a this-sounds-so-wretchedly-over-the-top-not-to-mention-insane-it-could-almost-be-fun low/high concept, the results, to put it kindly, were mixed. “Snakes on a Plane,” which sounded like a title that Don Simpson scrawled in white powder on a table at 4:00 a.m., was a movie that wore its brain-deadness on both lapels. But 17 years ago, that title inspired mountains of online chatter, to the point that the filmmakers incorporated bits and pieces of the obsessive fan gabble into the movie, most famously the Samuel L. Jackson line, “I have had it with these mothefuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin‘ plane!” The result was that “Snakes on a Plane” felt like the first piece of brazen Hollywood schlock that was crowdsourced. The audience went in thinking: It may be trash, but it’s our trash.
Yes, but it was trash. As the taking-off point for a knowingly debased action thriller, “Snakes on a Plane” wasn’t a good concept, but neither was it bad in a diverting way. It was just…dumb. And pointless. And monotonous. The picture made $34 million at the box office, which was simultaneously okay and not okay enough. The campy bad-movie high that was promised — or, at least, anticipated — never materialized. We never got to see the snake of schlock moviedom eating its own tail.
“Cocaine Bear,” on the other hand, just might connect the way it wants to. Is the movie good? No. Is it bad? Not quite. Is it ridiculous in a shameless and flamboyant enough way to be a gonzo delight? Only if you set the bar low enough by going in expecting that that’s what you’re going to see, in which case the power of suggestion might tilt you toward thinking that it is. The line on “Cocaine Bear” is that it’s so nutty, so luridly preposterous, so WTF-are-we-watching? (at the screening I attended, someone literally yelled out, “What the fuck is this movie?”) that it’s all but irresistible. You must go on opening weekend! And submit to the madness! I can’t get enough of this motherfuckin’ cocaine in this motherfuckin’ bear!
My advice: Relax, it’s only a movie. One designed to be a jokey conversation piece, though at least half the joke is the title, which is so hilariously basic, so 1980s-meets-Tik-Tok, so balls-out-and-in-your-face. But the other half of the joke is that “Cocaine Bear,” unlike “Snakes on a Plane,” takes off from a concept that you can take to the bank: In 1985, a black bear, in the Chattahoochee mountains of Tennessee, has consumed several kilos of cocaine (they were left scattered from a plane by a flaked-out drug dealer), which transforms the normally peaceful animal into a gnashing, raging, bloody-jawed human-eating beast.
“Cocaine Bear” was never crowdsourced, but one of its selling points is that the film’s audience has been primed to think of the movie as theirs. This weekend, everyone is going to watch it through that lens, as if it were a grizzly-of-the-wilderness slasher movie fused with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Products used to come with the instruction “Just add water.” “Cocaine Bear” comes with the (implicit) instruction, “Just add the audience’s cheeky acknowledgement that they’re in on what a demented lark this is.” I predict a $50 million opening weekend, which is a lot of knowing japery.
Are we laughing with it or at it? The key to the “Cocaine Bear” formula is that even the director, Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Charlie’s Angels”), and the screenwriter, Jimmy Warden, may not totally know. They’ve made a movie that’s smart about being dumb, one that throws a stunted but energized collection of characters up onscreen — Norwegian tourists (one of whom is the first to get eaten, like an appetizer); a drug dealer, his henchman, and his surly son; a mother searching for her 13-year-old daughter; a demented Park Ranger and her unwilling paramour; three knife-wielding delinquents who worship Marcel Duchamp; and a veteran police officer with an unreasonable attachment to his Maltese.
If these characters, who keep colliding in the wooded mountains, were in a movie without a rampaging bear, they would not rank all that high on the amusement scale. They still don’t. Yet the bear adds gore and suspense and a soupçon of lurid excitement, the same way that an ax-wielding psycho does. And the elaborate chintziness of the characters is all part of the design. When one of them gets eaten, we shrug and think, “Yep. Deserved it.” In its harmless and rather agreeable outré-blockbuster-as-midnight-movie way, “Cocaine Bear” turns into a celebration of our disaffection.
Not that this is so new. Movies have been mixing carnage and giggles since at least the carnival horror of the “Evil Dead” films. We’ve been cheering on cut-rate characters getting slaughtered in bloodbaths since the rise of Freddy and Jason. But “Cocaine Bear” is less formulaic than a slasher film and more stylishly made. It’s a true oddball, one that mixes yocks and mock desperation and disembodied limbs. So when it’s over you can say, “Well, we definitely saw that.”
It is, of course, based on a true story. But only the black bear part happened. The movie, to its credit, is not inhumane about what happens to the bear. It keeps ingesting the cocaine, at one point swallowing a kilo in its brown wrapper, at other points inhaling clouds of white powder. We might even assume, in a way, that the bear is enjoying herself (yes, it’s a girl). But we’re never asked to deride her plight. The hapless humans in this movie are more than enough to soak up our ridicule.
A few of them pop. Ray Liotta, in his final screen performance, plays the drug honcho in greasy long hair and imposes his snaky menace. O’Shea Jackson Jr. takes command as Liotta’s strictly-business thug underling, who makes fast work of beating up the three delinquents after they jump him in a bathroom. He forces one of them, a platinum-blond punk played with compelling squirreliness by Aaron Holliday, to go on a nature walk to the gazebo where the delinquents stashed several duffel bags of the dropped cocaine. Jackson is so low-key likable that we’re surprised when a gun shot injures him the way it does. But life is cheap in “Cocaine Bear.” Keri Russell grounds the movie as the distraught mom, and the great Margo Martindale does what she can with the broadly written role of the Park Ranger, who is myopically romantically inclined. Alden Ehrenreich, as Liotta’s son, plays it all as tongue-in-cheek weepy and oversensitive.
There’s one set piece that’s a real riot. It starts out in the Ranger’s cabin, which the bear has ambushed, and carries on in the van that several characters jump into — we think, once they start driving, that they’ve escaped, but we would be wrong. This bear is fast. The sequence that follows is a true jaw-dropper, though it almost feels like it could have come out of a new version of “Smokey and the Bandit.” “Cocaine Bear” does whatever it takes to get a rise out of you. But have no fear, we’re always in on the joke of it all, which is that none of it matters. Are you laughing yet?