Cocaine Bear, 2023.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks.
Starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ray Liotta, Kristofer Hivju, Margo Martindale, Christian Convery, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Kahyun Kim, Scott Seiss, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Ayoola Smart, Aaron Holliday, Conor Lambert, Shane Connellan, J.B. Moore, Leo Hanna, Oisín Nolan, Christopher Livingston, and Matthew Rhys.
An oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists, and teens converges in a Georgia forest where a 500-pound black bear goes on a murderous rampage after unintentionally ingesting cocaine.
Tonally, Cocaine Bear is satisfyingly high on its own absurdist supply, serving up the desired over-the-top scene after scene of “did I really just witness that” zaniness from a true-story-inspired film set in 1985 about a black bear snorting coke and going on an agitated, murderous rampage.
Director Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) and screenwriter Jimmy Warden don’t waste a single second establishing the film’s goofy mood and setting up its premise, as a drug runner flying over Tennessee starts dancing terribly while tossing duffel bags of cocaine out and onto the drop point, only to accidentally hit his head and go flying out the aircraft unable to deploy his parachute (which appears to have happened in real life, suggesting that fantasy and fiction are not far apart here).
Naturally, he’s dead, which initiates an investigation by detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) that points to career criminal Syd (the great Ray Liotta in one of his final performances), also drawing in a circus freak ensemble, including disobedient school-ditching children wandering off into the woods (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), the former’s concerned nurse mother (Keri Russell), a flirty and trigger-happy park ranger (Margo Martindale), hippies observing the drugged out black bear like it’s a thing of beauty (the biggest mistake of their lives), delinquent teenagers vandalizing the woods, and a pair of longtime friends ordered to recover the missing stash (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich), with the latter grieving his dead wife and contemplating escaping the family drug business.
Historically, one of the largest pitfalls a movie like Cocaine Bear can slip into is the effort of spending too much time with human characters. And while it does take a good 20 minutes or so before this bonkers tale truly becomes ludicrous and begins incorporating the titular cocaine bear, there is a gleefully demented excitement emanating from the introduction of these characters, quickly building intrigue as to how these idiots are going to interact or meet their demise by the beast. More often than not, those expectations are met with ridiculous behavior and graphic kills that smartly opt for practical blood makeup effects over CGI fakeness.
There is a tangible strength in Elizabeth Banks’ direction to, in a split second, transition from broad comedy and situational humor to thrilling suspense (something the bear also often does); it’s a supremely tricky tonal balance that she maintains throughout. Working with cinematographer John Guleserian, she creates sustained moments of terror, such as the bear slowly crawling across a knocked-over door that has fallen a potential victim or ambulance chase sequence mayhem punctuated by a laugh-out-loud cruel death.
Admittedly, some of these characters one does want to see survive; others, well, it’s fun to relish in their gory fate. Impressively for a film primarily set in the daytime, the CGI special effects bringing the bear to life are quite polished and increasingly become more detailed in anger as the desperation for another fix keeps returning.
It’s also safe to say that the grand finale is a weaker aspect, giving in to the urge to get a bit preachy and vocal about man versus nature and how the real enemy is drug dealers, something the story otherwise decently puts on display without explicitly mentioning it. For large portions of Cocaine Bear, it’s a genuine mystery of what the hell will happen next or which characters will cross each other’s paths, and the ending does fall into some formulaic and routine climactic plotting. However, the journey is uproariously entertaining and aware not to pull back on any of its outlandish characters or situations.
Sure, it’s not saying anything profound about the topics it’s addressing, and the characters are not deep human beings, but it’s also called fucking Cocaine Bear. Elizabeth Banks knew how crazy this movie should be and leaned into that as hard as the bear does drugs.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com