Cocaine Bear (United States, 2023)

February 24, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cocaine Bear Poster

The “so bad it’s good” tag often applied to co-called “cult classics” is as elusive a categorization as there is in cinema. Most of the time, it evolves organically from the failure of a movie. Planning campiness is more apt to result in disappointment than warped enjoyment. Cocaine Bear is an exception. Self-aware from the beginning of what it is, the film hits more often than it misses and, by embracing the sheer ludicrousness of the central conceit, it offers 95 minutes of escapist fare. Make no mistake, however – Cocaine Bear is silly but it’s not stupid. The filmmakers – director Elizabeth Banks, writer Jimmy Warden, and producers Phil Lord & Christopher Miller – approach the subject with the right mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and Grand Guignol excess. The movie has its share of problems – there are too many characters, too many extraneous subplots, and the pacing is uneven – but when it works, it’s like the fusion of an ultra-violent cartoon with the Pulp Fiction scene in which Vincent Vega accidentally shoots Marvin in the face.

Cocaine Bear stakes its claim of being based on true events, which is accurate depending on how far one is willing to stretch the concept of “true.” Back in 1985, there was a guy who threw duffel bags of coke out a plane door then followed the white powder fortune with a parachute that didn’t open. (Actual contemporaneous news clips show this much early in the proceedings.) A black bear in the mountains of Georgia came upon some of the drugs and ingested them, dying. In Cocaine Bear, however, the overdose doesn’t kill the bear but instead enrages it, turning it into a psychotic monster. It slaughters pretty much everyone that crosses its path. Meanwhile, a mother (Kerry Russell) is trying to find her daughter (Brooklyn Prince), who is lost with a friend (Christian Convery). She is aided by the no-nonsense Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) who has a gun and isn’t afraid to use it. The drug dealer “owner” of the cocaine, Syd (Ray Liotta in one of his final completed performances), sends his henchman, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), to retrieve what’s left of the drop. A Kentucky cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), heads to Georgia on a quest to arrest Syd. None of these characters – or the members of a petty criminal gang or the EMTs responding to a call – are ready for Cocaine Bear.

With a movie like this, tone is everything. Elizabeth Banks, the actress-turned-director whose previous output includes Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels, in seeking to expand her range beyond female-centric pictures, gets it. The audience laughs with the movie rather than at it. The violence is necessarily over-the-top, the blood flows freely, and there’s just enough gory material (including amputated limbs, a decapitated head, and a disembowelment) to plant Cocaine Bear firmly in R-rated territory and keep it there. As for the drug aspect…although the film can’t be said to glorify cocaine, it has a little fun with equating its restorative powers to those of spinach for Popeye.

Although there are stretches during Cocaine Bear when the freewheeling momentum flags (most often when neither the Bear nor Margo Martindale are on screen), there are several fantastic set pieces. One focuses on the mistaken belief that climbing a tree might be a good way to evade the Bear. Another involves an attempted rescue by a pair of EMTs that turns into a high-speed chase. A third explores what happens when the Bear collapses unconscious on top of someone.

There’s a steep body count, which one expects from a movie of this sort. Since none of the characters is developed beyond the point where the viewer thinks of them as more than future bear food, tears are not forthcoming. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that anyone survives. Cocaine Bear doesn’t feature any A-list stars but it has several recognizable names – Kerri Russell, Margo Martindale, the late Ray Liotta, Alden Ehrenreich, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. – in thankless roles. Although Martindale manages to steal a few scenes, the movie belongs to the title creature, which was created primarily by computers.

Individual reaction will vary. Those with a sufficiently warped sense of humor will laugh their way through the proceedings. Others may chuckle occasionally and be generally satisfied with what Cocaine Bear has to offer during its svelte running time. Still others will be befuddled by the film, seeing it as a misfire and not entirely buying into what it’s trying to do. The title is the key. Anyone attending a movie called Cocaine Bear with lofty expectations is going to be disappointed. This is a case when there’s truth in advertising. Cocaine Bear is imperfect. By traditional cinematic standards, it’s probably not very good. But it is fun and won’t disappoint many who are titillated by the title.

Cocaine Bear (United States, 2023)

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cast: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklyn Prince, Christian Convery, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Home Release Date: 2023-04-18
Screenplay: Jimmy Warden
Cinematography: John Guleserian
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-04-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1