There’s life before seeing Cocaine Bear and then there’s life after. I much prefer the latter; the former isn’t as absurd and chaotic. As the title suggests, what you see is what you get but leave it to the official Twitter account and fantastic trailers to pull of a flawless marketing campaign. Much like last years Smile that placed people creepily standing behind home plate at baseball games starring directly into the camera, if the title alone of Cocaine Bear didn’t get you on board, the marketing should have done the trick. What more could you want from a coke induced black bear set loose in the forest when unsuspecting humans step foot into their habitat.
Based on the outrageous true story that has since become the legend of the bear known as Pablo Escobear, seeing is believing. Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jilly Warden, Cocaine Bear has the look and feel of an 80’s inspired horror B movie where the very thin plot and characters don’t matter. All anyone wants to see as suggested from the trailers is the absolute carnage that would come by way of a black bear getting into kilos of white powder and then proceeding to act accordingly.
Based on potential alone, Elizabeth Banks half delivers on the promise of the premise. A movie like Cocaine Bear begs to be seen in a crowded theater with expectations checked at the door. The result becomes euphoric as the black bear sniffs out her target after displaying the strange effects coke would have on anyone, and then preceding to rip said person to pieces and get bored and move on to the next unsuspecting human.
Set in 1985, a shipment of cocaine is dropped from the sky over the Chattahoochee National forest where a black bear swallows and sniffs kilos of cocaine. The coke belongs to kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) (In his final role) who sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and associate Daveed (O’ Shae Jackson Jr.) to collect the missing shipment. That’s one of the basic plots that moves the story toward the absolute carnage, the other half follows Henry (Christian Convery) and Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), two kids who play hooky to venture in the forest to paint the waterfall when they come across a kilo of cocaine and the protective bear who doesn’t want to share. Dee Dee’s mother Sari (Keri Russell) desperate to find her daughter, enters the forest, ignorant, like everyone else to the fact that a black bear has ingested a ton of cocaine.
As the story hobbles along, other tasty variables are added to the frenzy. The film opens on two unsuspecting hikers Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) who were just minding their own business until the bear interrupted their photo shoot and decided they were the first victims brought on by the coke induced rage. Even before meeting the two love birds, Banks sets the tone by featuring excerpts from the Wikipedia page on black bears where during an encounter to scare the bear away. And immediately, Olaf and Else, do the opposite.
Always listen to Wikipedia, its rarely wrong.
Other additions to the ensemble include Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a cop named Bob in the search for the cocaine, Margo Martindale as Ranger Liz and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Peter. Featuring a strong ensemble of talent, from top to bottom each actor and actress fully commits to the idea of an uncontrollable bear who came into a goldmine of cocaine. Several sequences of the white powder are shown in slow motion being sniffed up by the bear and the immediate reaction of death to the closest person in proximity to the bear.
When the bear is on the hunt, stalking its prey like Michael Myers, screenwriter Jimmy Warden builds the anticipation and tension, but when the bear isn’t the focus or its whereabouts unknown, the film loses all its luster and steam, barely clinging to the humans for support. When all is quiet, that’s when the bear strikes, ripping limbs and tearing off flesh. Among the human characters, moments of bear on human violence is few, falling short of expectations the title would suggest.
Out of the few action sequences, one in particular stands out among the rest. What epitomizes Cocaine Bear that Elizabeth Banks fully commits to is the chaos and unpredictability this story brings. The sequence I keep replaying over and in my head happens about halfway through the 95-minute runtime. Shown briefly in the marking, the ambulance sequence involving the unsuspecting paramedics plays out like a symphony. Banks has total control over this sequence, fully representing the mayhem that could happen.
But even with a bear strung out on cocaine, Elizabeth Banks tames the bear and in doing so leaves a lot of potential gore and violence to be desired. When the bear isn’t on screen and the focus is solely on the humans, the bear is forgotten entirely, off in the woods somewhere, probably rallying between fits of rage. It wouldn’t be as much of an absence if the characters were remotely interesting or if there was a central protagonist – my guess it’s Sari but there was no way Banks and Warden would take too much of a risk with the human deaths.
Regardless of all the missed opportunities, Cocaine Bear provides a rousing and raucous good time at the theater. It’s what seeing a movie with a bunch of strangers is all about. Turn off the expectations and let the carnage wash over you. In his final appearance before his passing Ray Liotta goes out on a high note – cocaine is his business, channeling his inner Henry Hill once more. Keri Russell leads the way but it’s the brotherly bond between O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich that steals the show. In my theater, the biggest laugh comes by way of human on human violence, something that happens with zero logic but funnier as a result.
It may not be an award contender (although it should be), movies that are experiential wind up sticking with us longer in more meaningful ways. Cocaine Bear is an experience one soon would not forget.
Screenplay By: Jimmy Warden
Directed By: Elizabeth Banks
Music By: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cinematography: John Guleserian
Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Edited By: Joel Negron
Release Date: February 24, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 35 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%