'Cocaine Bear,' directed by Elizabeth Banks.

'Cocaine Bear,' directed by Elizabeth Banks. © 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

If you slap a title on a film with as much promise as ‘Cocaine Bear’, there had better be A) plenty of cocaine and B) a bear. Fortunately, this new pitch dark comedy delivers both––you’ll see more powder on screen than in a skiing competition and plentiful bear activity. This is far more fully ursine than, say, ‘The Edge’.

Bears with obsessions have been cinematic gold in the past––see, for example, Winnie the Pooh’s love of honey or Paddington’s choice of marmalade sandwiches. ‘Cocaine Bear’, however, is definitely more of a horror (in the entertaining sense of the word) than either of those. And the title character here has fewer homilies about behavior to deliver.

Cocaine Bear

"Get in line."
R1 hr 35 minFeb 24th, 2023
Showtimes & Tickets

What is ‘Cocaine Bear’ based on?

Inspired by the unbelievable true story of a drug runner ditching his haul over Tennessee (and proceeding to die when his parachute doesn’t open after he jumps out), ‘Cocaine Bear’ follows what happens when a black bear stumbles upon one of the cocaine packages that ends up landing in the Blood Mountain region of Georgia.

Before long, hikers, park rangers, and drug dealers––the latter on the hunt for their missing narcotics––are just trying to survive as the bear, hooked on the stuff, rampages through the woods, seeking out its next high and savaging almost everyone it happens upon.

Caught up in all this is Sari (Keri Russell), a single mother whose daughter Dee Dee (‘The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school with best friend Henry (‘Sweet Tooth’ star Christian Convery). She’ll have to find the kids and save her own hide when she crosses paths with both the bear and the criminals…

Director Elizabeth Banks on the set of 'Cocaine Bear.'

Director Elizabeth Banks on the set of 'Cocaine Bear.' © 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

What works in ‘Cocaine Bear’?

Director Elizabeth Banks has shown a keen eye and ear for comedy in both her acting and directing past (even her unfairly maligned ‘Charlie’s Angels’ reboot is funnier than people remember). And combined with the usually sure hands of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (for whom she acted in 'The Lego Movie’ franchise), Banks has delivered an early contender for silliest (and goriest) movie of the year.

‘Cocaine Bear’ is under no illusions as to what is on offer––come for the drug-addled ursine, stay for the various humans who are trying not to die. With a succession of entertaining ‘80s needle drops (since the movie is set in 1985), the tone is here very much echoing Sam Raimi’s early work, with plenty of practical effects spurting blood everywhere.

The cast also seems very aware of the assignment; and the likes of O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and even the late, great Ray Liotta deliver on the laughs as well as breathing life into these people. A special shout-out must also go to Aaron Holliday playing the nogoodnik known as “‘Stache”, who gives real Dax Shepard energy as he makes his gangly way through the movie.

Set-piece-wise, it’s also a whole heap of fun, with Margo Martindale in particular (or at least her stunt double) put through the ringer as a Park Ranger with a gun and terrible aim. One particularly funny scene involves, Martindale, a couple of paramedics played by Kahyun Kim and Tom Scott Seiss, an ambulance and the titular creature. Let’s just say that the ‘Fast & Furious’ crew might get some ideas, and the use of Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is the blood-red cherry on the cocaine cake.

In amongst all the practical gore, there is the bear, a creation of Wētā FX that means no real animals were used in the scenes. “Cokey” was performed on set by a performance capture actor named Allan Henry, who trained with Andy Serkis on the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies. He and the digital wizardry are responsible for some of the funnier moments in the movie.

Actually, the bear straddles both categories. While there are moments where it looks like it padded straight out of a National Geographic documentary, there are other times when it looks ridiculously crude and wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Sharknado’ movie. That doesn’t really hurt the entertainment value.

Keri Russell in director Elizabeth Banks' 'Cocaine Bear.'

Keri Russell in director Elizabeth Banks' 'Cocaine Bear.' © 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

What doesn’t work in ‘Cocaine Bear’?

Like its central figure, the movie also has high points –– pun entirely intended –– and low points, though the highs are more consistent and the lows are mostly a product of the tone.

This is a movie that was never aiming for subtlety, nor particularly deep character development, and indeed it is mostly without either. And while that certainly works given the zanier tone, it’s also a little one-note. Beyond a couple of stabs at real emotion between Sari and her young charges and one or two fun exchanges between O’Shea Jackson, Jr.’s Daveed: and Ehrenreich’s Eddie, there’s not much to make you care for anyone on screen.

Which is really the point, since it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that many characters end up as bear bait (or at the hands of more human fates).

Yet Jimmy Warden’s script is never quite as funny as all involved seem to think it is––certainly it has some laugh-out-loud moments (as we referred to above), but there’s still the sense of the creators chuckling away more than the audience perhaps will.

Expect this one to be more of a cult favorite, sure to be enjoyed by audiences in years to come, and certainly one to see with a crowd expecting little more than a gory, campy comedy that makes sure you get what you expect.

‘Cocaine Bear’ receives 7 out of 10 stars.

O'Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ayoola Smart, and Ray Liotta in director Elizabeth Banks' 'Cocaine Bear.'

(L to R) O'Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ayoola Smart, and Ray Liotta in director Elizabeth Banks' 'Cocaine Bear.' © 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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