The premise of Cocaine Bear is really simple: there is a bear, and it does cocaine—a LOT of cocaine. In this way, Cocaine Bear is exactly what it says on the tin. It is both as stupid and awesome as it sounds, but do not be fooled, it’s actually a good movie under its gonzo coke-addled skin.
Written by Jimmy Warden and directed by Elizabeth Banks, Cocaine Bear is an alternate history of the infamous 1985 “cocaine bear case” in which drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II dumped kilos of coke into the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, before he died when his parachute failed to open and he landed on a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Thornton and the “cocaine bear” are a favorite anecdote in true crime circles, and the story has inspired not only this movie but also the best season of Justified (consider this your annual reminder to watch Justified).
Matthew Rhys has more fun in thirty seconds as a fist-pumping, karate-chopping, yee-hawing Thornton than most people will have all year, establishing Thornton’s drug drop in the forest and his death by driveway in Tennessee. In real life, the black bear which ingested seventy-five pounds of cocaine died almost immediately of an overdose. In the alternate history of Cocaine Bear, the bear goes full coke rampage, and the film is stuffed with characters upon whom the bear can chomp. Cocaine Bear is basically a classic 1980s slasher, but instead of a lumbering guy in a hockey mask, the slasher is the bear. It’s so brilliant, it’s fully stupid. Or it’s so stupid, it’s fully brilliant. Either way, Cocaine Bear is the definition of “dumb fun”, and Banks is a savvy director with a knack for capturing physical comedy who pulls off a number of gore gags that are 1) legit gory, 2) very funny, and 3) clever.
The film follows various groups as they trek into the forest and encounter the cocaine bear. There is harried single mom Sari (Keri Russell), whose tween daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and friend (Christian Convery) have gotten lost in the forest after stumbling across the bear. There is also a park ranger on the make (Margo Martindale) and the animal rights activist she wants to bang (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Then there are the drug runners, grief-stricken widower Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his pal, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and their boss—and Eddie’s dad—Syd (Ray Liotta), who want their drugs back, and the detective chasing them, Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). There are others who stumble into the cocaine bear’s path, but these are the main players.
Cocaine Bear gets the Eighties right, not only in production design—courtesy Aaron Haye—but also in tone. This is not the Eighties remembered through a nostalgic Gen X lens, but the Eighties as it was, complete with Jason Bateman posters, Berlin on the soundtrack (Banks also uses Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” as the opening song, which I choose to believe is a nod to Wet Hot American Summer), and clothes that actually aren’t THAT bad. But Cocaine Bear is also Eighties in tone, with classic gore effects that wouldn’t go amiss in a Friday the 13th movie, and the kind of thinly sketched drama that just barely covers the premise with a coat of “we tried” respectability, like Road House and Predator before it. The film barely hangs together, but it’s doing just enough to sell the premise and keep chugging from one bear mauling to another.
And it’s genuinely funny! Ehrenreich is the MVP as Eddie, wrecked by the death of his wife, resentful of being pulled back into his father’s shady dealings. An early scene features a plate of penne pasta and the way he says, “It’s just plain!” is so perfect he basically sells the entire movie in one line. Similarly, Bob the detective spends most of his time trying to reconcile himself to his new, fancy dog, Rosette. It’s the kind of silly subplot movies like this thrive on, just enough background to suggest Bob’s life beyond this moment, but also a totally random detail that lends itself to numerous jokes. If there is any complaint to be lodged, it’s that maybe Cocaine Bear could use more of Eddie and Bob’s energy, the comparatively grounded, “imperiled children” plot of Sari is not equally compelling, largely because it’s almost too real for the bonkers premise. But the payoff of all these people being in the forest together works, and Banks & Co. get credit for representing the over-romanticized “Amblin latchkey kid” as an actual asshole tween.
The buckets of blood and literal guts of Cocaine Bear might be too much for those who don’t like gore. This is not a toned-down modern horror movie in which people die just off screen. It is 100% in the style of an Eighties slasher, right up to the totally predictable fate of the couple who just f-cked, and there is enough cocaine on screen to power a remake of Scarface.
This is a movie that I want to see again, preferably at a drive-in. It lends itself to a fully nostalgic experience without being the least bit nostalgic for the Eighties, which is the best kind of nostalgia, really. Not unlike Point Break and Road House, Cocaine Bear is smart about the ways in which it is dumb, it’s a stupid premise stretched thin but executed with technical expertise and visual flair, and performed by a group of very talented actors having the time of their lives. You cannot ask for more from a movie called Cocaine Bear than a fun time watching a bear on cocaine, and on that front, Cocaine Bear delivers.
Cocaine Bear is exclusively in theaters from February 24, 2023.