Piranhaconda. Arachnoquake. Sharknado. Those are just a handful of the ridiculous titles of movies that promised an equally ridiculous premise that were prevalent on the Syfy Channel throughout the early to mid-2000s. Cocaine Bear sounds like another absurd creature feature that would feel right at home among them, but with one crucial difference: whereas those other titles were made-for-TV movies with chintzy special effects and casts populated by unknowns and C-list stars, Cocaine Bear is a big screen theater extravaganza with a pretty impressive pedigree. It’s multi-hyphenate talent Elizabeth Banks’ third directorial effort, filmmaking duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller serve as producers, and the cast is headlined both by legit stars (Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich) and well-loved, recognizable character actors (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale). In this regard, Cocaine Bear—itself set in 1985—marries the excess of the 80s with the format of the popular B movies of the 70s, which saw films like 1972’s Night of the Lepus (giant killer rabbits), 1978’s The Swarm (killer bees), and—perhaps most relevant to the topic at hand—1976’s Grizzly (killer bear) bring together impressively sprawling ensemble casts to combat an utterly absurd problem. On the one hand, Cocaine Bear delivers exactly what its straightforward title promises: a black bear residing in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest ingests a ton of cocaine dumped by a drug smuggler from a plane, and goes on an insane rampage. On the other hand, Cocaine Bear feels like it’s missing the thing that those other titles I mentioned have that make them work for what they are.
Perhaps I’m asking more of a movie called Cocaine Bear than I have any right to, but as a longtime B movie connoisseur, a critical ingredient in making a successful B movie is the commitment of the actors. In something like The Swarm—a movie in which a swarm of bees somehow derail an entire train—leading man Michael Caine and the supporting players surrounding him completely sell the absurdity of their dilemma. In Cocaine Bear—despite the quality of the cast’s performances being all over the map in general—there’s too much winking at the audience. The movie lets us know that it knows how crazy its premise is from the get-go, when the opening titles cards, played over tranquil nature scenes, pull quotes from a Wikipedia article about how this is movie is based on a true story. That is accurate, although the real version of events after the coke is dropped out of the plane and the bear eats it is far less cinematic (the bear died pretty much immediately, without killing anyone, and was stuffed and put on display in a mall in Lexington, Kentucky). The human characters are also prone throughout the film to spelling out the insanity they’ve gotten in to. But the actual movie doesn’t match those expectations. When the (painfully obviously CGI) bear is on screen, its violent scenes are surprisingly gruesome. But the film, while it is (also surprisingly) quite empathetic to the bear and to nature in the end, actually doesn’t center its narrative around its titular bear enough.
Unfortunately, Cocaine Bear is one of those annoying movies that really only needs to do one thing (in this case, let the bear cook) but ends up trying to do too many things. There’s an absurd amount of characters in this thing, and while there isn’t really a lead, they can be effectively divided into two groups. The first is single mom Sari (Russell) who sets out to look for her young daughter (Dee Dee, played by Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) after they sneak out into the woods where the bear is at to paint a waterfall. The other group involves the drug dealers. St. Louis-based kingpin Syd White (Ray Liotta, in his final film role) sends out Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to both find his son Eddie (Ehrenreich) who is torn up over the death of his wife and find their missing cocaine. Daveed picks up Eddie and they head down to Georgia, but they are pursued by Knoxville police officer Bob (Whitlock Jr.) who has been trying to catch Syd for years. Jimmy Warden’s screenplay spends too much time developing these characters without giving us enough reason to care about them, and what’s intended to be humorous banter is more often than not forced and uneven. That attempt at striking a comedic tone feels even more at odds with the bear attack scenes, which frequently are legitimately tense. Banks, whose previous directorial credits including Pitch Perfect 2 and a 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, has proved herself skilled at helmed both comedy and action, but the two don’t always work together well here.
Some of the actors are putting in the work, however. Ehrenreich, who hasn’t been on screen for the last several years, turns in a standout performances that rings with the sincerity and solid comedic timing that so much of the rest of the cast struggles with. The child actors are also quite convincing, particularly Convery, who throws his little body into the role with gusto. But even Cocaine Bear’s tight 95 minute runtime feels an hour too long, its poor pacing as it alternates between human drama and bear drama causing the film to wear out its welcome much faster than it should. I’m all for studios churning out mid-budget original movies based on an odd concept, but they still have to make effective use of that concept. Frankly, I think Sharknado did it better.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated R.
2 thoughts on “Review: “Cocaine Bear””
Hi Katie! My press screening was canceled because of a snowstorm but I might check this out when it’s free on streaming. I figure it’d be gory and I’m kinda squeamish about that so I think it’s best to watch this at home. I’ll keep my expectations in check.
P.S. I never saw Sharknado but I enjoyed MEG which is kind of a similar silly actioner w/ Jason Statham!
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I kind of enjoyed The Meg too! There are maybe two bits of Cocaine Bear that I can think of that are pretty gross but otherwise it isn’t too bad- most of the actual attacks happen offscreen and you just see the aftermath. So hopefully you’ll be fine watching at home!