Cocaine Bear (2023)

Get in line.

“A bear did cocaine,” a character states at one point in director Elizabeth Banks’ grisly horror-comedy Cocaine Bear. A goofy, gory B-grade feature in the spirit of films like Snakes on a Plane (2006) and even 2013’s Sharknado, it’s hard to believe that Cocaine Bear is actually inspired by a ‘true events.’

I say ‘true events’ in the loosest sense possible. See, Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden, The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020), have built their film around the real-life story of a black bear (who was later nicknamed Pablo Eskobear) that consumed millions of dollars of lost cocaine in 1985 after a former cop turned-drug smuggler, Andrew C. Thornton II, offloaded it in a national forest in Georgia from a malfunctioning helicopter during the Reagan War on Drugs. Of course, the bear died after having ingested 75 pounds of blow, but Banks and her team have given us an amusing ‘what if’ scenario, where instead of dying, the American black bear lives and turns into a ruthless killer, hell-bent on getting another coke fix.

This bear is out for blow and blood …

The movie opens where we see criminal Andrew C. Thornton II (played here in an amusing cameo by Matthew Rhys) dump duffle bags full of cocaine bricks off a chopper before losing his life when his parachute fails to open, the cocaine he drops getting lost somewhere in the rural Georgia woods. We then cut to some archival news footage from the actual era. A couple of local detectives, Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and his rookie partner Reba (Ayoola Smart), soon arrive on the scene to find the body and link the missing cocaine to St. Louis drug kingpin Syd White (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles), who they’d been trying to catch for quite some time. Thus, in order to make an arrest and potentially find the missing drugs, the cops head to Blood Mountain National Park in Chattahoochee, where they suspect the missing coke is. Naturally, Syd hears news of the crash and sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and trusted fixer and muscle Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the millions of dollars of lost white powder.

Policing the Blood Mountain area is park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), who’s got a lot on her plate; not only is Liz trying to deal with a trio of local punks known as The Duchamps (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna) who’ve been causing mischief out in the woods, but she’s also attempting to hook up with a dorky animal conservationist she’s got a thing for named Peter (Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who comes to visit her office. Elsewhere, recently divorced single mom Sari (Keri Russell) finds herself tramping through the forest, searching for her rebellious 12-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who ditches school with her best friend Henry (an amusing Christian Convery) to paint some rocks near the falls. Alas, the kids stumble on a brick of cocaine, which sets some weird and wacky events in motion.

Bears can get high quite quickly.

Like any good drug fix, Cocaine Bear starts on a high before coming down, the first half of the film featuring some of the movie’s best bits. ‘Cokey’ the bear (who’s actually a female here) is first sighted by a pair of Norwegian hikers, Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra), which playfully sets the campy tone; there is another gruesomely silly scene that culminates in Cokey doing a line of blow from a severed leg. The flick peaks, however, in a gnarly sequence where Cokey attacks a couple of EMTs (played by TikTok comedian Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim), this chase culminating with the 500-pound beast literally jumping into a moving ambulance van to attack its prey; it’s this kind of madcap insanity that viewers have paid to see from a film titled Cocaine Bear.

Unfortunately, things get a bit too ‘talky’ the further the flick trudges along, with Banks and her team focusing too heavily on the dealers and their storyline, leaving the drug-crazed bear missing for large chunks of the film at a time — even at a brisk 95-minutes, the movie kinda drags in its back half. Subplots involving detective Bob having to look after a fancy white dog, and another relating to Eddie’s broken heart basically go nowhere and take away from the stuff audiences have come to see.

Don’t do drugs!

Director Elizabeth Banks, Charlie’s Angels (2019), must have learned a thing or two from being on the set of James Gunn’s low-budget 2006 horror-comedy Slither because she seems to have replicated some of his zany energy here whilst crafting something of a throwback to the era in which the action is set. With that said, Banks nails a lot of the laughs while crafting some stand-out kills and bloody dismemberments — even if I’d hoped for more. Similarly, given its relatively smaller budget, the VFX team at Weta FX has done a tremendous job in bringing Cokey to glorious life (no actual bears did cocaine during the production of the film). The raging coked-up black bear looks about as believable as one would expect — I’m sniffing a potential Oscar nomination down the line. And, oh, the sweet eighties soundtrack kicks ass, too.

All up, Cocaine Bear is a bonkers treat, tailor-made for a specific type of audience, the film never taking itself too seriously. Banks and co. deliver on their promise of a bloody good time at the multiplex, even if the crazy concept of a wild bear rampaging through the wilderness high on cocaine isn’t fully utilized. Basically, don’t go into this one expecting another Citizen Kane, and you’ll walk away (somewhat) satisfied — Citizen Cocaine, perhaps?

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)

Cocaine Bear is released through Universal Pictures Australia