There’s another universe in which a movie called Cocaine Bear is a hard-R splatter-fest that makes the most of its ridiculous concept, its cast of heightened characters, and the unending memetic potential of the title alone. We don’t live in that universe, however, and the Cocaine Bear we got mostly focuses on that third thing. And really, that’s all it needs to do in order to fulfill its obligation of putting asses in seats as we mosey toward blockbuster season. One hundred percent of this film’s marketing is the drumming up of incredulousness at how ridiculous and dangerous it would be if a bear got into some cocaine. It’s a meme, not a movie, but as far as feature-length memes go, it’ll do just fine.
Cocaine Bear is based on a true story, and it opens with the one factual thing about it: a drug shipment gone awry. A plane carrying the titular white powder jettisons its cargo before going down, releasing a large quantity of Colombian nose candy into a wooded, mountainous state park. This is a smart move for those connected to the shipment. Rather than losing their stash in a fiery crash, they can send some runners in to retrieve the safely disposed cargo and keep it moving to its destination, with law enforcement never being any the wiser. Naturally they didn’t expect that a gigantic black bear would get its claws on the shipment, accidentally inhale a bunch of it, and get really, really, REALLY high.
It’s a concept that simply cannot fail, and for the most part, it doesn’t. You came to see a coked-up bear fuck shit up, and that’s exactly what happens. Mind you, the true story isn’t nearly as wild as it sounds. The real bear (lovingly dubbed “Pablo Escobear” by those in charge of such things) ate a bunch of coke and died from it a few days later. And since eating coke doesn’t really do anything in terms of getting you high, there were only 3-4 grams in the bear’s bloodstream at the time of its death. The bear only overdosed insofar as it ate a ton of inedible chemicals. It did not go on a wild rampage, nor did anyone encounter it after the time of consumption. It was only discovered after it had died. The entertainment value only came later when it was preserved via taxidermy and placed on display at a mall in Kentucky.
But that doesn’t make a movie, does it? For Cocaine Bear, the bear does manage to snort the drugs as well as eat them, and as a result it becomes yakked to the gills, crazy violent, and so immediately addicted to the stuff that it’s constantly seeking more — just like a human cocaine user.
The bulk of the plot is based around the humans who are placed, through a variety of circumstance, into the path of the bear. There’s a mom (Keri Russell) looking for her child who played hooky from school and wandered into the forest with a friend. There’s a duo of drug mules (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) tasked with retrieving the cocaine under orders from their superior, Syd (Ray Liotta – RIP). There’s a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who sees the botched drop as an opportunity to catch some bad guys (no, he doesn’t ever say “sheeeeeeeeeeit” even though this is THE movie for it). In addition to our main players are a handful of redshirts (including a shamefully underused Margo Martindale) each of whom exist to be on the receiving end of ursine violence.
It’s a ton of movie unceremoniously crammed into not a lot of movie, which is fine because it’s barely (bearly?) a movie at all. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not, like the real world Escobear, stuffed. With so many characters running around, the film is caught between identities. Is it trying to be an ensemble comedy? A survival film? A cops and robbers joint? Yes, yes, and yes. Also no, no, and no. Granted, when putting together a movie like this one, you need as many opportunities for carnage as possible, but there’s a way to do it that doesn’t feel so all over the place. One gets the sense that the original script fleshed out these characters more, but when the filmmakers saw they were brushing up against a runtime way too long to hold attention to its insane concept, they cut it down to the bare (bear?) minimum.
It’s a smart move given that the film’s final runtime is just over 90 minutes — the perfect length for such a lark, but a lot of it does feel like filler nonetheless. One moment, in which they flash back to a scene that we didn’t see in the first place, reeks of post-production meddling, but at least it was in service of preserving a pretty gnarly gore gag.
And it’s in this department that Cocaine Bear surprised me. It’s not nearly as bloody as it should be, but it’s much, much bloodier than I could have ever expected. The scenes of carnage are all well-staged and cleverly assembled to maximize both the violence and the comedy. A standout sequence involving a team of medics sent to what they thought would be a standard crime scene is the best part of the whole dang thing. If the rest of the film matched this one scene in tone, we’d be looking at a new classic
But to have super high artistic hopes for a film called Cocaine Bear is, to put it simply, absolutely insane. Sure, given a B-movie dress down and a removal of the requirements of mass appeal, this could’ve been something really special, but again, that’s just not the world we live in. The fact of the matter is that audiences worldwide are going to show up for something goofy and weird, and they’re going to laugh themselves stupid when they do, and the director, Elizabeth Banks, is going to get an even bigger budget for whatever she chooses to make next. Looking back on her filmography as both a performer and a filmmaker, this is wildly exciting. She’s used whatever clout she had to make a movie about a coked-up bear, for fucks sake. If that doesn’t make you a hero I don’t know what does.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Written by Jimmy Warden
Starring Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta
Rated R, 95 minutes