Director Elizabeth Banks’s “Cocaine Bear” is high on its own supply in this animal attack horror entry.

If I were a basic gay, I would start this review with “A Cocaine Bear? You just mean West Hollywood at 3 a.m.?” and move on with my day…but I’m not, and I won’t…but you get the picture. Despite my best efforts, Cocaine Bear isn’t about a group of hairy muscly gay men thwacked out of their mind in the middle of the street after go-go dancing for six hours straight, but rather an actual bear, on actual cocaine. Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this. Still, there are some stories in film that are so simple, yet so absolutely insane that you know that it has to be taken from reality, and Cocaine Bear is no different as it’s “inspired” by a true story of a 500 lb American Black Bear who consumed 75 lbs of cocaine after smugglers dropped it into the Tennessee forest in 1985. Naturally, the bear died of an overdose and no real information surrounding his time with the cocaine is known…a.k.a. prime material for making a horror-comedy. The bear, known colloquially as “Pablo Escobear,” is surmised to have simply consumed the cocaine, had the time of his life, and then died from the inevitable overdose, with no rampage against the local townsfolk and tourists reported…but that doesn’t make a good film, and director Elizabeth Banks knows that. What does? Apparently, having beloved character actors stave off the brutal attacks of a coked-out black bear out for blood and cocaine does.


L-R: Stache (Aaron Holliday), Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) in COCAINE BEAR, directed by Elizabeth Banks. Photo courtesy of Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures.

The year is 1985, and the cocaine boom is at its max. While dropping duffel bags of cocaine for retrieval from an airplane, drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) botches his escape from the airplane, leaving him dead on a Knoxville sidewalk, and hundreds of pounds of unclaimed cocaine in the Chattahoochee Forest of Georgia. As smuggler kingpin Sydney White (Ray Liotta) attempts to retrieve his missing cocaine, he sends lackeys Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehreneich) to retrieve it from the forest, all while being tailed by detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Meanwhile, after learning her child (Brooklynn Prince) and a friend (Christian Convery) have skipped school to wander the forest, nurse Sari (Keri Russell) searches with bumbling park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and wildlife expert Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to find them. As the separate parties converge on each other, they soon realize pounds of cocaine already consumed in the forest, and soon find themselves at the brutal mercy of Cocaine Bear, on a rampage to find more cocaine, willing to dismember and disembowel anyone looking to get in her way.


Cocaine Bear in COCAINE BEAR, directed by Elizabeth Banks. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

There are a lot of characters in Cocaine Bear, so much so that you don’t really get the chance to get anything particularly deep from any of them. But the film actually manages to balance that successfully, so when we get to watch an ensemble of some of our favorite character actors get their shit absolutely rocked by this coked out bear, we feel less guilty and far more giddy at the resulting brutality. Of course, once we realize who the real main characters are who are going to the end, Cocaine Bear does feel a little bit more predictable, but it’s also a film literally called Cocaine Bear that is about a bear on cocaine. I wasn’t looking for surprises here.


L-R: Sari (Keri Russell), Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) in COCAINE BEAR, directed by Elizabeth Banks. Photo courtesy of Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures.

Though I did walk away with one really pleasant surprise that I would like to see further explored: Elizabeth Banks is a really wonderful horror director. Having seen some of her other films as director, I knew she could pull off the comedic side of the film with ease (which she does), but I was really pleased by just how effectively she pulls off the more thrilling, and sometimes horrifying, moments of Cocaine Bear. This is an incredibly hard R-rated film, and she spares no expense in dismembering, disemboweling, decapitating, shooting, stabbing, slashing, dragging, crashing, breaking, and bleeding these actors dry in the face of the bear, and there are some genuinely nasty moments she pulls off that make me really want to see her try immersing herself fully into the genre, because I think she could have a great artistic pivot into horror if she should want to.


L-R: Keri Russell as Sari and Cocaine Bear in COCAINE BEAR, directed by Elizabeth Banks. Photo courtesy of Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures.

At first, I didn’t quite know what to think of the CGI bear employed in Cocaine Bear, mostly because I can’t ever really make up my mind on something by simply watching the trailer, but I was also pleasantly surprised at how well the bear turned out in the end product. I suppose, since most of their resources probably went into the creation of the eponymous Cocaine Bear, the end result is something, while still clearly not a real bear, realistic enough to create the dissonance once the bear starts doing, let’s just say, un-bearlike things. Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden even go so far to make the bear a sympathetic character amongst the bunch. One could not be held responsible for their actions, particularly when it comes to protecting their home and family, after accidentally consuming 75 lbs of cocaine, and it almost makes it hard to treat the bear as a villain more than as a scared, angry, and voraciously hungry for cocaine creature. Plus, it also avoids a possible Gordy’s Home situation had CGI not been employed.

Small aside: This is a wonderful final outing for actor Ray Liotta, and if I were an actor, and my final scene in my final film is what Ray Liotta got to do here, I’d call that a win. I will miss him dearly.


L-R: Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart) and Syd (Ray Liotta) in COCAINE BEAR, directed by Elizabeth Banks. Photo courtesy of Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures.

Cocaine Bear isn’t going to change your life. It’s a 90-minute comedy thriller with a stacked cast, clever writing, and a bear on freaking cocaine, dude. Why do I even need to continue elaborating on that? It is 100% truth in advertising, and I can’t really imagine anyone finding the space to genuinely hate something so completely straightforward and unpretentious as this (I’ve seen some left underwhelmed by the film, but no one who hates it), mostly because I can’t imagine anyone showing up for a film called Cocaine Bear without a clear expectation of what they’re getting into, unless you’re another gay who thinks this is about those West Hollywood muscle bears again, but that comes in the sequel Ketamine Bears, I assume.

In theaters February 24th, 2023.

For more information, head to the official Cocaine Bear website.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.


Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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