3 out of 5 stars

Strictly in terms of screen time, Cocaine Bear is more about the cocaine than the bear. But as everyone surely knows by now, this is a bear that does cocaine—and so it’s the animal (the one which does cocaine), rather than yet another saga of bickering criminals, which audiences are going to see.

Whether the titular beast satisfies will be a personal matter. The bear’s not quite as outrageously coke-addled as one might hope and actually spends most of its time lurking offscreen. However, the beast’s more convincing than many other digital animals, and when it does appear, both it and screenwriter Jimmy Warden have no hesitation killing off characters with a pleasing vividness. Of course, that’s as it should be, for a bear that does cocaine.

The viral trailers would like us to believe Cocaine Bear can be boiled down to four words—beginning with “a bear” and ending in “does cocaine”—but there’s surprisingly more to it than that. And while the broader storyline’s familiar, there’s a quiet wit to Warden’s screenplay that nicely complements the slapstick humour, and it can even be heard in Mark Mothersbaugh’s music too.

Based extremely loosely on a true story (there really was a bear which did cocaine dumped by smugglers, though that’s about it), Cocaine Bear takes place in the US state of Georgia in 1985. That the movie was shot in Ireland only adds to the surreality! A smuggler drops a large quantity of cocaine from a plane before falling to his death, and a detective called Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) investigates the case and goes looking for the lost drugs, unaware a black bear has consumed some of the coke…

Around the same time, pre-teens Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) are playing truant from school in the national forest near Blood Mountain where the drugs fell; Dee Dee’s mother Sari (Keri Russell) sets out to look for them, enlisting the help of a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and a scientist who works with her (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); three other drug smugglers (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ray Liotta) are searching the woods for the valuable blow; a trio of young men, among them Stache (Aaron Holliday), are causing trouble in the forest; and two hikers (Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra) are wowed by their close encounter with nature in the form of a large black bear. Unbeknownst to them the bear has.. well, you know.

Ursine rampages ensue. Characters hunt each other while being stalked by the bear, a few more appear only to meet sticky ends, and when not pursuing tasty humans the bear pursues every available opportunity to inhale more cocaine. “It’s demented, or something,” one character observes.

Much is made of every appearance of the bear (which, you’ll recall, has done cocaine), from the crook’s first encounter with its footprint, to a Jurassic Park-style close-up of a predatory eye. Yet Cocaine Bear isn’t quite the high-concept creature-feature in the vein of Snakes on a Plane (2006), its most obvious mainstream equivalent, let alone other bearsploitation movies like Claws (1977) or Grizzly (1976). This one is a decent family bear at heart, except it’s done a lot of mind-altering drugs.

The humans are mostly portrayed with fondness too; only Liotta’s short-tempered leader of the drug gang is a truly unlikeable presence, and nearly all are given both humanity and humour by a talented ensemble that’s unexpectedly strong for this type of disposable one-joke film.

Martindale is as terrific as a slightly deranged ranger held back in her career by her failure to control the youths misbehaving in her park (“I’d have been at Yellowstone by now if it weren’t for you”), at one point discussing her “dusty beaver” with a colleague. Whitlock is as watchable as always, as is the late Ray Liotta in his last screen role (Cocaine Bear is dedicated to him); while the lesser-known Holliday as a young tough who isn’t that tough at all, and Convery as one of the two kids, also stand out.

Cocaine Bear is rightly unembarrassed by its own absurdity, both in small details (a billboard implores tourists to “visit the original glory hole”) as well as the larger set pieces (the best scene finds a group of characters attempt to make their exit, literally pursued by a bear, to the accompaniment of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”). 

But there’s a sense writer Warden and director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels) are holding back a bit on the potential of a movie with such a memorable title. Cocaine Bear is never as OTT as one might expect from a film about a bear that does cocaine, and too much time is spent on mildly diverting but essentially uninteresting issues like the inter-relationships of the gang and the detective’s disappointment with his new pet dog. 

Still, it’s impossible to dislike a film full of such gleeful mayhem. And even if some will be disappointed by the prolonged absences of the titular cocaine-addled bear, seeing too much of the animal would almost certainly have worn thin. The capable cast, as well as the script (which contains just the right amount of silliness in the dialogue), do plenty to hold the attention otherwise.

Plus, there’s a bear that does cocaine.

USA | 2023 | 95 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Elizabeth Banks.
writer: Jimmy Warden.
starring: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr. & Margo Martindale.