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Cocaine Bear review – this generation’s Snakes on a Plane, for better or worse

Elizabeth Banks's third directorial effort is effective whenever it's in slasher/horror mode, but painfully unfunny jokes drag it down

Though I’m not sure it was something people were expecting, or even asking for, with Cocaine Bear we finally have this generation’s Snakes on a Plane. From the asking-to-be-meme’d title to the very internet-inspired sense of humour to the enjoyably mean-spirited violence and to the ultimate disappointment with the finished product, Elizabeth Banks’s third directorial effort completely lives up to its Samuel L. Jackson-starring predecessor. For better and – often – worse, Cocaine Bear is a film entirely committed to its title and the tone that that implies.

Though there are a lot of failings along the way with Cocaine Bear, the one mistake Banks and writer Jimmy Warden never make is wasting any time. We’ve barely had time to read the opening titles before a Scandinavian couple is being mauled to death by a drug-crazed black bear out in the woods of a Georgia national park. We soon learn that the bear has been driven into a frenzy by coke dumped out of a smuggler’s prop plane in the midst of Reagan’s War on Drugs, but Banks lets the gore and the limbs fly before getting into the nitty-gritty of the exposition.

This is a wise move, as Cocaine Bear is always best when nobody’s talking. There are a lot of characters being juggled here (at one point there are four concurrent plots going on, way too many for a 90-minute slasher) and none of them are particularly great company. Whether it’s the irritating kids who stumble upon the bear after skipping school to hang out in the woods or the sub-sub-sub-Tarantino plotline of the sensitive drug dealers looking for the lost coke, most of the dialogue is trying way too hard to fit into zany archetypes and the drab performances reflect that.

Very few, if any, of the verbal gags actually land to get a laugh, and the busy plotting mostly serves to get in the way of the film’s core appeal, i.e. watching a crazed apex predator shred its way through the cast’s very expendable and immediately forgettable humans. It’s an appeal that does work when it’s allowed to, though, Banks making a much more convincing case as a slasher director here than a comedy one. It’s not exactly scary, but the kills are imaginative and grisly and frequent enough that you’re never quite sure who’s gonna die next, or how. The bear itself is, of course, the film’s best character, very occasionally let down by a bit of janky effects work but mostly convincing and honestly hard to root against – Banks allows it some moments of goofiness amidst the carnage that are genuinely endearing.

If Cocaine Bear had been played more straight as a monster movie, there is a Friday night cult classic somewhere in the bones of this film – cut out the gags and you’ve basically got a slasher starring a four-legged Jason Voorhees. As it is, though, it’s far too busy winking at the audience to fully capitalise on its premise, always wanting to let you know that it’s in on the joke, too. Unfortunately, that joke is almost always painfully unfunny.

Cocaine Bear is released in UK cinemas in 24 February.

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