Producers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Brian Duffield and Aditya Sood   Director: Elizabeth Banks   Screenplay: Jimmy Warden   Cast: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna, Ayoola Smart, Kahyun Kim, Scott Seiss, Matthew Rhys, Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta   Distributor: Universal

Grade: C

A throwback to the goofy horror comedies of the 1980s and 1990s—movies like “Tremors” and “Arachnophobia”—but with the added nastiness today’s audiences expect, “Cocaine Bear” has already achieved popular notoriety on the basis of internet chatter.  It doesn’t really live up to the hype: though sporadically amusing, it’s too busy and tries too hard.

This first solo feature screenplay by Jimmy Warden (who previously got a joint credit on “The Babysitter: Killer Queen,” the 2020 sequel to a movie in which he had an acting credit as “Some Asshole”) features an ensemble of characters, most of whom are assholes too.  In fact, a major problem with the picture is that there are entirely too many goofballs roaming around through the wilderness where the plot is set; rapidly shifting among them doesn’t permit any to get the focus that would engender much audience concern when they become the prey of the titular beast, a CGI critter that’s ostentatiously phony—one hopes as an intentional joke.

The story takes off from an actual 1985 event, when a drug runner tossed containers of coke from a plane, which were found by a bear that ingested the drug and died.  On its own that scenario would hardly make for an exciting movie, so Warden has essentially turned it into something similar to “Jaws” and its many imitators (including the recent “Beast,” also from Universal), but played for gruesome laughs, with plenty of gross-out comic violence and severed plastic limbs. 

“Cocaine Bear” starts with a reenactment of the drug dump and clips of news footage of the 1985 incident.  But it then takes us to a state park, where the cocaine landed and the bear ate some of it, supposedly driving it into a frenzy.  It attacks a couple of wedding-planning hikers, killing the woman (Hannah Hoekstra) and injuring her fiancé (Kristofer Hivju). 

Then a small army of other characters are introduced.  The ones viewers are primed to root for are Sari (Kerri Russell), her thirteen-year old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Dee Dee’s chum Henry (Christian Convery); the kids have ditched school for the day and gone off into the woods so Dee Dee can paint a waterfall, and Sari is soon trying to chase them down.  The kids find a package of the cocaine and try it out, though the effect on them is pretty much ignored.

And they’re hardly alone.  St. Louis drug kingpin Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta, in his last screen role) must recover the lost cocaine or face the wrath of his Colombian suppliers, so he sends his loyal henchman Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to find the stuff, ordering him to take along Syd’s son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s grieving the death of his wife.  Simultaneously detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), hoping finally to get enough evidence to arrest Syd, travels south to find the drugs himself, leaving his new pooch in the care of his trusted partner Reba (Ayoola Smart).

At the ranger station where lovesick Liz (Margo Martindale) presides, awaiting the unwitting object of her affection, doofus wildlife-protector Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Daveed is attacked by a trio of hayseed juvenile delinquents, Stache (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J.B. Moore) and Ponytail (Leo Hanna).  He dispatches them but is wounded in the process, and then commandeers Stache to lead him and Eddie to a gazebo where they’d hidden some of the cocaine.  Meanwhile Sari joins Liz and Peter in their hike into the woods.  Syd and Reba eventually show up as well, as do a couple of unlucky paramedics (Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss). 

It would be a thankless task to try to catalogue the various characters’ encounters with the bear and one another.  Suffice it to say that as directed with energy but not much verve by Elizabeth Banks, the movie shifts frantically from one set of folks to another and that in the process bodies pile up, some dispatched by the ursine critter, which is at some times portrayed as menacing and at others as genially loopy, and some killed, accidentally or on purpose, by their fellow humans.  None of the mayhem is meant to be taken seriously, of course, which makes the amount of tension the movie can generate negligible, even during a finale on a ledge behind the waterfall.

But it is meant to make you laugh and wince simultaneously, which it doesn’t really manage to do, even when characters you might like are endangered.  In the chaos a few of the ensemble come off better than others—including Jackson as weary Daveed, Convery as little wiseacre Henry and Holliday as slacker Stache—but some, like Martindale and Whitlock, go way over the top to diminishing returns, while others, like Russell and Ehrenreich, just blandly fade into the background.  In his screen swansong Liotta simply simmers wearing a gargantuan wig; it’s hardly the late actor’s finest hour.

On a technical level, apart from the persistently unconvincing bear, the picture is pretty slick, with John Guleserian’s cinematography and Aaron Hayes’s production design more than passing muster, while Mark Mothersbaugh’s score hits some welcome notes of wryness.  Joel Negron’s editing can’t erase the abruptness in the transitions and the sloppiness of some of the action moments, but on the plus side he has trimmed things to a tolerable ninety-five minutes.

Does “Cocaine Bear” fall into the notorious “so bad it’s good” category?  Well, it’s not really that bad.  Nor is it actually good.  It occupies that nebulous middle ground where, after a big opening weekend based on high rumor-fed expectations, the overall reaction will probably settle into “meh,” with a shrug.  But by then it will have done some solid business and made a tidy profit on its modest budget.