It is preposterous that a movie called Cocaine Bear can even exist, but what is even more outrageous is that anyone could turn the concept of a bear on a coke binge into exquisite cinematic entertainment. Leave it to Elizabeth Banks, whose signature dark humor is on full, majestic display in this movie about a wild animal that ingests cocaine and goes on a rampage. The movie may be predictable at almost every turn, but its refusal to take itself too seriously and its commitment to keeping the proceedings simple and straightforward — in addition to that shocking sense of comicality — are what make it entertaining regardless.
The setting is the aptly-named “Blood Mountain,” located somewhere in the Georgia wilderness. Two kids — Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) and Christian Convery (Sweet Tooth) — are playing hooky in the woods when they stumble upon a red duffle bag full of cocaine sticking out like a sore thumb in the idyllic natural landscape. Hilarity ensues when the two try to act cool by “doing” coke by eating it rather than snorting it. But the real fun begins a bit later when a vagabond black bear crashes the party and helps herself to a line… or 30. (You find out the bear’s gender later on when she takes a nap on top of Alden Ehrenreich, her private parts resting on his ear.)
Cocaine Bear is inspired by the true story of a high-flying drug smuggler who lost several bags of cocaine over the Georgia wilderness in the 1980s. The drugs were later found around a dead, 40-pound black bear. Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden have hilariously imagined what this bear’s story might have been had it lived to tell the tale, and what might have happened to any humans unlucky enough to cross its path in the midst of its coke-fueled rampage.
In the movie, that group of hapless victims includes a cadre of drug dealers played by Ray Liotta (in his final screen role), O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Alden Ehrenreich; three young skater punks who threaten parkgoers; a disgruntled park ranger played by a hysterical Margot Martindale; and the concerned mother of one of the disappeared young teens, played by Keri Russell. Chaos ensues as this band of misfits lollygags across the mountain, each serving their own purposes, all of which revolve in some way around the “cocaine” portion of the title but are upended by the “bear” part. “Chaos” may, in fact, be an understatement given the ensuing parade of blood, guts, and gore that follows, but hopefully, you get the drift.
To be sure, Cocaine Bear is predictable and even infantile, much like some of its characters. It’s predictable because, like most horror or survival films, including serious ones like last year’s lion-themed thriller Beast, the identities of the bear’s mauling victims are almost instantly obvious based on a character’s conveyed likability. Though there are good reasons why films of this formula do not deviate from that structure or veer into killing off their likable characters, that element adds a necessary but frustrating degree of predictability that makes it hard to be surprised. And Cocaine Bear is infantile because it is more than anything concerned with attention-catching moments of bloodletting as opposed to anything more thoughtful or sincere.
But, perhaps like the drug-fueled throes of ecstasy, Cocaine Bear sure feels nice when the high kicks in. Effective cuts by Editor Joel Negron, improbably realistic renditions of the bear designed by the film’s VFX teams, and appropriately gross makeup by its prosthetic teams, all aid in heightening the tension, so there’s a lot to like here from a below-the-line perspective. Sufficient, self-effacing, and incredibly sardonic performances from the entire cast help make almost every character likable, even those you know are soon to be bear food.
In the end, however, it is Cocaine Bear’s self-restraint that makes it effective overall in spite of its shortcomings. And, yes, I do mean self-restraint, with respect to a movie that depicts children running around the forest with cocaine and bad guys getting decapitated and then some by the animal’s furious paws. The restraint is evident in all the things you don’t see during the film’s refreshingly brief 90-minute runtime — obnoxious elements that infect so many movies in this genre, such as unnecessary redemption storylines or romantic subplots, unconvincing virtue signaling, and other superfluous sentimentalities.
Banks has previously said that female directors are instinctively shunned when it comes to the dark comedy or action genre. She isn’t necessarily wrong about that, but with her incredibly amusing and crowd-pleasing Cocaine Bear, she ensures that it’s only a matter of time before that barrier breaks, if she hasn’t smashed it here already like a furious mama bear looking out for the cubs of the future.
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Universal Pictures.