With an absurdly literal, Snakes on a Plane-ish title like Cocaine Bear, you know you're in for a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. But there's a fine line between self-aware silliness and smug irony, especially these days: I am reminded of a night, some years ago, when I went to a karaoke bar and some hipster girl decided to talk her way through "Hotel California" instead of singing it; I hate the song as much as the next guy, but her sneering attempt at mockery fell flat. Compared to that performance, Cocaine Bear hits just the right notes that a 21st century B-movie requires. Its humor is droll, its suspense capable, its cast totally on board. It's not trying to be campy – it just wants to give you a good time.
Based very loosely on actual events, Cocaine Bear unfolds in 1985, when a smuggler's airplane full of cocaine dumps its million-dollar stash – thanks to a feckless pilot – over the North Georgia forest. His fellow smugglers (Alden Ehrenreich, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and the late Ray Liotta) drive up to recover what they can. Meanwhile, a local mother (Keri Russell) heads into the same woods to look for her errant daughter and her daughter's buddy. And if that weren't enough, you have a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on the smugglers' trail, a trio of local hoods, a pair of bumbling park rangers, and, you guessed it, an enormous black bear who has snorted up some of the fallen cocaine, which sends her into a violent, drug-fueled frenzy that connects all these characters.
This is Elizabeth Banks's third feature as a director. As an actress, she has proven herself adaptable to any genre, and more than anything, Cocaine Bear harkens back to James Gunn's 2006 comedy-horror flick Slither, in which she starred. There's a lot of that same tone here. If Banks prefers a deadpan approach over Gunn's gleefully gross antics, both films still hit that B-movie sweet spot.
Even on its own merits, however, Cocaine Bear doesn't quite achieve greatness. There are scenes that work so well – a set piece involving an ambulance is absolute perfection in terms of thrills and shock value – that you wind up wishing the rest of the movie was as crazy. Still and all, it's a satisfying ride.