Movie Review: “Cocaine Bear” reinvents the boundaries of cinema and what’s possible for the medium moving forward. An absolutely groundbreaking work that sets the tone for 2023. Just kidding. But it’s still goofy and wild. And a bear does cocaine.
The bear did cocaine. There’s honestly not much more that you need to know before heading into Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear” – the newest studio comedy attempting to resurrect a genre on life support for the better part of a decade now. I’m typically a fan of lowbrow, dumb comedies but I tend to steer away when the movie insists on being purposefully bad or crass. The “Sharknado” or “Scary Movie” franchises have never been ones that I’ve been interested in and I usually find them insultingly boring.
I was a bit concerned this may be the case with “Cocaine Bear,” but I also had a small glimmer of hope considering that the cast contained Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Keri Russell, and Ray Liotta in one of his final acting credits. The movie is also produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, so there was some oversight by filmmakers who’ve proven time and time again that they know what they’re doing.
“Cocaine Bear” is exactly what you think it is. In the beginning, a 500-pound black bear accidentally gets its paws on a duffel bag of cocaine and begins to ravage the locals in a Georgia national park. What begins as a drug deal for some and a day of playing hooky from school for others quickly turns into a fight to survive against one of nature’s apex predators.
As audacious and ludicrous as the title reads, and how stacked this cast of characters really is, “Cocaine Bear” was balancing on a fine line. The premise seems like a story ripped directly from a Twitter thread, even if the story is partially based on true events that happened in the mid-1980s when a bear actually ingested cocaine – but immediately died as a result. Instead, Elizabeth Banks and Lord Miller Productions thought a highly dramatized retelling would revitalize a comedy horror genre desperately looking for the next best hit.
And while I’m not going to ding it too hard for lacking any thematic purpose or ideas, as well as feeling like the writers room took more cocaine than the bear does in the movie, I do wish it was a bit funnier and leaned a bit heavier into its own campy side. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are responsible for some of the better lowbrow comedies of the last decade, including the “21 Jump Street” franchise, both “Lego Movie” iterations, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” and a handful of other projects I really admire. On its surface, I can accept “Cocaine Bear” as another semi-successful entry into their archive. But when you stack it up to those hits, it doesn’t really compete.
The biggest issue here is that there are too many moving parts to make “Cocaine Bear” come to life. Instead of focusing on telling one coherent story centered around a bear snorting a duffel bag of cocaine, the movie moves in so many directions to introduce about five too many characters. Drug cartels, petty criminals, cops, park rangers, tourists, and split family members all converge on this one national park. There’s not nearly enough time spent with them to gain your footing into “Cocaine Bear,” and the experience partially lacks because of it.
The other slight issue I had with “Cocaine Bear” was that the heavily CGI’d beast weaves in and out of the story as a side character to the uninteresting plot lines packed in. The movie tries to build a narrative that an audience can get into, but it rarely develops any emotional weight and has to rely heavily on gory and ridiculous kills to garner interest. There are some riveting sequences and action set pieces, but it struggles at times to come together as a complete movie.
But even with some of those shortcomings, I still had a relatively enjoyable and mindless time at the movies. It’s schlocky and campy in many of the best possible ways, and the ending indicates that the filmmaking team understood just how ridiculous this assignment was. Elizabeth Banks’ directing credits aren’t all that impressive up to this point (the notable projects include “Pitch Perfect 2” and the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot from 2019), but “Cocaine Bear” hopefully signals a step up in quality moving forward.
The cast of “Cocaine Bear” is generally where this movie soars. I’ll attempt to group them by plotline, although many of them intersect at points in the film. Keri Russell, Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery play a mother and two kids on a wild goose chase. Margo Martindale plays a park ranger that overlooks the national park that all these events take place. Isiah Whitlock Jr. serves as a local sheriff investigating the drug dealings of O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and the late, great Ray Liotta. Although none of those actors have enough screen time to completely take over the movie, I found Alden Ehrenreich to be the most effective and funny of the bunch. He’s got the right weathered approach that deepens the movie and his comedic timing is always on.
Honestly, again, story takes the backburner in “Cocaine Bear” and the movie inevitably becomes a handful of famous actors and actresses trying to escape this national park alive. Is it a thrill ride and decently fun? For the most part, yes. Is it a genuinely good movie that uses its premise for the best effect? Not really. Three cocaine bears out of five.