Director Elizabeth Banks delivers what’s on the Cocaine Bear tin. There’s a bear, it does cocaine. People die, and you will laugh. Writer Jimmy Warden does his darndest with an absurd “When Coked-Out Animals Attack” scenario sorta based on a true story, blending creature feature wildness with a claws-out ‘80s comedy—for better and worse. What can feel like a mechanical monster movie (only with sniffing white gold instead of blood) finds humor in the macabre, focusing on graphic death scenes at a detriment to tonal unison between its extreme violence and darkly comedic giggles.
Cocaine Bear very, very loosely adapts a bizarre and tragic 1985 report about an airborne narcotics smuggler, 40 kilos of cocaine thrown into the Chattahoochee National Forest, and a black bear who ingests some 34 kilograms. In Warden’s action-horror reimagining, the bear goes all tunnel-vision apex predator, hunting hikers (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra), criminal henchmen (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich), park rangers (Margo Martindale)—anyone in Cokey the Bear’s path. That includes single mother Sari (Keri Russell) and her missing daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), among the unfortunate Chattahoochee explorers near where “Cocaine Bear” roams.
Banks approaches Cocaine Bear without hiding her gory-goofy intentions. Characters exist to be pursued, maimed and dismembered by a drug-trippin’ mammal not restricted by typical bear behaviors. You’re here to vibe with cheeky Jefferson Starship needle drops and a synth-poppy score underneath chaos primed for communal watches, as filler material between death scenes matters much less than the murderous rampages. When Cocaine Bear beats its chest—as furry paws tear away human flesh or sever appendages—Bank’s command holds strong. The assignment is understood, leaning into the B-movie nature of Warden’s concocted narrative that bounces around an ensemble cast.
Cocaine Bear makes proper use of its R-rating; Banks doesn’t skimp on the gruesome nature of fresh claw wounds or legs gnawed past muscles. Jaws or Jurassic Park cues put a premium on vicious attacks that ramp intensity with haste as the powder-dusted bear bounds into frame like a furry speeding bullet. Mother Nature’s brutality is on display as a 500-pound, coke-fueled superbeast spills blood across forest floors, ranger stations and ambulance beds—wherever the next poor panicked sap tries to flee for cover. You’re here for the beheadings, disembowelments and splatters of blood that erupt from chewed-raw bodies, and there’s no shortage.
What suffers throughout this gonzo amalgamation of Coen Brothers-style character mapping and SYFY-level title gimmickry is a handle on tone, as the comedy pales compared to the action-horror sequences. Ehrenreich shines brightest as a depressed ex-drug dealer pulled back into business by his father (a ruthless kingpin played by the late Ray Liotta), landing the most laugh-out-loud lines as a grieving widower dealing with a cocaine bear problem. His exhausted reactions are helpful performance glue, which becomes problematic because Banks often has to jump between other parties. There’s not much development between some of the stereotypes—like hippie animal lover Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) or lone wolf detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—who are simply present to get more bodies in front of Cokey. There’s a flatness to the scattered jokes that don’t sustain the spiked energy between bear-on-person brutality, which might keep audiences wondering where they’ll get their next jolt of crimson carnage.
The biggest issue of Cocaine Bear is the duration it takes for its momentum to reach a consistent flow. There are exciting bursts to the front half, as future survivors and victims suss out what’s wrong with the menacing black bear, but Banks doesn’t find steady footing until a mid-story gazebo standoff—or, possibly, the thrilling high-speed ambulance chase that’d make Dominic Toretto chuckle. When the wheels fall off, Banks shines. When Martindale’s Ranger Liz tries to put the moves on not-so-humble humanitarian Peter or other meandering subplots unfold, there’s a duller shine to Cocaine Bear. It all culminates with Keri Russell getting her due spotlight and a few further thematic surprises, but the journey isn’t without a few bumps (the downer kind).
Thankfully, Cocaine Bear fulfills its glorious promise: A bear, on cocaine, gone kill-happy against humankind. Banks has her finger on the pulse of creature features with ridiculous concepts that throw rationale to the wayside, sharing DNA with other crowd-pleasers like Deep Blue Sea or Snakes on a Plane. Special effects designers do their best with a scarily mobile digital bear, and while Warden’s screenplay does read detrimentally barebones at times, actual bones are tossed into view like an off-color olive branch. I don’t love every storytelling element, but I do adore all that involves the star of the show, an aggro bear on obscene amounts of blow. You’ll get what you pay for, and can we ask much more from Cocaine Bear?
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writer: Jimmy Warden
Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Aaron Holliday, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Release Date: February 24, 2023
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.