Review: Cocaine Bear Isn’t Elevated Art, but It is One Hell of a Good Time

I would never be so bold as to try to paint the new horror-comedy (I’m not sure how else to classify it) Cocaine Bear as any kind of masterpiece, but I’ll be damned if this thing didn’t make me laugh a lot, gross me out more than a few times, and provide genuine tension here and there. Perfect date-night movie from where I’m sitting. Throw in a truly fun and versatile cast, Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) in the director’s chair again, and skilled producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller steering the ship, and you have yourself movie that my sainted grandmother would have called a hoot.

Very loosely based on a true 1985 incident in which a normally docile black bear actually got its snout into a bunch of cocaine dumped out of a drug smuggler’s plane over the Georgia wilderness, Cocaine Bear runs with the premise by having multiple storylines converge in the forest on that fateful day. Keri Russell plays Sari, a mother and nurse whose daughter (Florida Project’s Brooklyn Prince) and her best friend (Christian Convery) skip school and head for the woods for an adventurous day out. Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. play low-level drug runners sent by their boss (the late Ray Liotta) to retrieve the couple-dozen bag of coke dumped out of the plane before it crashed. Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Ayoola Smart are the police also looking for said narcotics and the dealers responsible for it being there in the first place. Finally, the great Margo Martindale plays the local forest ranger who cares less about missing children or a hopped-up bear in the woods and more about a visiting wildlife inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) she has the hots for.

During the course of what I believe is a single day, this ensemble run into each other, point guns and shoot at each other, take each other hostage or captive, and at one point or another, they all get attacked by the titular 500-lb. apex predator that has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and is jonesing for more. For the record, the coke makes the bear mental and quite violent, taking off limbs, pulling out guts, and taking big bites out of people’s hindquarters at various points. 

Is this an extended, one-joke premise? You bet it is. If you haven’t already figured that out from the title, you may need professional help. But the jokes aren’t all about the coke-fueled bear. Every character here is going through something that is causing them great pain and/or anxiety that has nothing to do with the bear. The bear is just the icing on the cake of an already bad day for most. Russell has to deal with a rebellious daughter, Ehrenreich has suffered a great personal loss, even Liotta is stressed about finding his coke before his supplier finds out the drugs are lost and they aren’t getting paid. It’s rough all over.

I can understand why some might think Cocaine Bear isn’t sure what it tonally wants to be, but I wholeheartedly disagree. This movie wanted to be a savage comedy, complete with brutal and bloody attacks and the underlying idea that other humans are just as dangerous as the bear is. The movie wants you laughing when you aren’t screaming and gagging when you aren’t biting your nails, waiting for the next attack from who knows what. Martindale is the standout for me, in a cast full of fantastic players doing interesting things with their characters. She’s played awful people before, but her Ranger Liz is a special breed, and she is disposed of quite horribly. Whitlock is also quite funny as Det. Bob, who is just sick of everything and everybody, but is intent on doing his job until the bear is dealt with and the drugs are located.

I’m not sure the climatic showdown behind a waterfall between the family and the drug dealers really works (although the only thing cuter than a full-size bear in a coke coma is bear cubs dancing around in clouds of cocaine), but by that point, I was on board for the whole chaotic, messy ride. It’s safe to say you probably have to be in a particular mood to enjoy this movie to the fullest, but again, if you go into a movie called Cocaine Bear with elevated expectations in terms of character development or complex story structure, I urge you to refer to my earlier plea that you seek professional help.

That being said, I don’t think you have to lower your standards to appreciate the film’s humor or its more grotesque elements. Crowds are going to eat this up, and the film does us the sincere favor of not wearing out its welcome with its barely 90-minute running time. Like Frankenstein’s monster, this film is sloppily slapped together out of chunks of things that entertain me; it may not be pretty or poetic, but it’s as fun as a brick of coke that fell from the sky.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.