Back in 1985, back when everyone in Hollywood was doing blow, a black bear made national news after it consumed a huge quantity of coke dropped out of a plane into the Georgia woods by a drug runner. It took nearly thirty years later, but that jacked-up bear has finally made his own way to Hollywood with Universal’s Cocaine Bear, a pulpy thriller loosely based on the ‘85 ordeal. Due out this February, the horror comedy is directed by Elizabeth Banks with an ensemble cast that includes Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Margo Martindale, Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, and Solo’s Alden Ehrenreich.
The new trailer begins with two emergency medics arriving at what looks like a horror movie slaughter scene, only to come face to face with the titular bear on the titular cocaine. Russell plays a mother desperate to find her missing child amidst the bear’s rampage, Martindale plays a cop who gets tossed around by the blitzed beast, and Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson climbs a tree to get away from the bear, even though he knows full well that bears can climb trees…as, later his torn-off leg can attest to. The trailer makes hilarious use of the classic song “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” by Melle Mel, a groovy cautionary tale about the dangers of nose-based narcotics. (The preview also gives Ehrenreich the money line, as he shouts, “The bear, it fucking did cocaine! A bear did cocaine!”)
Banks spoke to The AU Review ahead of the trailer launch, explaining what drew her to this bizarre story. “I remember reading this story, thinking how sad it was that this bear became collateral damage in this fucked-up war on drugs,” she said. “I felt like this film was almost the opportunity to make a revenge movie for the bear.”
Tonally, Cocaine Bear seems like a cross between a terrifying creature feature like Crawl and a subversive horror send-up like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Banks first jumped into the director’s seat with Pitch Perfect 2, and has shown a knack for crafting the kind of rapid fire humor she’s so good at delivering as an actor herself. Her last feature, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels reboot, received mixed reviews and never found a commercial foothold, so resetting with an irreverent, low stakes action comedy like Cocaine Bear is a logical choice.
Though the movie promises Snakes on a Plane-ian absurdity (the trailer literally concludes with the bear launching itself into the open doors of a speeding ambulance) there is a poignant angle to Cocaine Bear. It serves as the first posthumous screen appearance by Ray Liotta, who passed at 67 this May. Banks paid tribute to Liotta in the wake of his death, writing on Instagram, “I had been told in the past by Hollywood producers that men wouldn’t follow me, that I couldn’t direct action because of that. Ray’s respect for me as a director, actress and artist, as his boss on set, meant everything to me because if you can direct Henry Hill, you can do fucking anything in this town.”
The film is slated for a February 24 release, and while the early months of the year are often known as the studio dumping ground, it’s also a stretch of time where an energetic crowd-pleaser could really thrive. Whatever the finished product looks like, it certainly won’t be lacking cocaine-fueled energy.