Cocaine Bear begins with the lines ‘Based on a True Story’ (barely) and is followed almost immediately by a quote cited from Wikipedia. As if the title alone didn’t clue you in, right off the bat you get a sense of the tone director Elizabeth Banks is aiming for with her buzzy, darkly comedic horror movie about a bear that eats, inhales and licks up cocaine like a Wall Street banker in a gentlemen’s club.
On the heels of M3gan’s camp delights, Cocaine Bear is another of Universal Pictures’ 90-minute high-concept genre flicks. The sort that helped sustain Hollywood for so long and yet looked to have been all but entirely consumed by the streaming market in recent years.
While we can’t know yet if its success is bound to spread beyond the confines of Twitter and TikTok, the steady release of this sort of mid-range programming will surely only help brick-and-mortar cinemas remain relevant and necessary to the general public outside of superheroes and visual effect extravaganzas of the post-COVID era. Cocaine Bear demands to be seen with a crowd certainly more so than the latest Marvel dud.
If a bear does coke in the woods …
Do you remember that joke from The Simpsons where Homer details the plot of mid-90s action classic Speed only to mis-name it as ‘The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down‘? Well, there’s no mistaking here. Cocaine Bear is indeed a movie about a bear that takes cocaine (an American black bear to be precise) after it falls out of the sky during a mid-air smuggler drug bust.
Kilos and kilos of the stuff – wrapped like bricks in brown paper and stuffed into brightly-coloured duffel bags – land scattered across a Georgia state forest in America’s south. What’s a mama bear to do?
Naturally, a bunch of clueless individuals are there to get in the bear’s way. First a pair of Scandinavian tourists. Then the drug kingpin’s son and henchman, a detective on their trail, a band of local hooligans, a blundering park ranger, and a mother searching for her kid who’s skipped school to go hiking in the woods.
As you would also probably expect, some meet grizzly (sorry, pun very much intended) ends at the hand of Cocaine Bear. An animal that just wants to rub its back against some trees in peace while blissed out on a stomach full of drugs and yet keeps getting interrupted by pesky humans. Can you really blame her?
In one of the more inventive sequences – understandably used prominently in all of the movie’s marketing – our Cocaine Bear chases down a speeding ambulance and ends with one of the gnarliest deaths I’ve seen in a studio-produced feature in years.
Elsewhere, limbs are dismembered, blood gushes, and brain matter is splattered. It’s certainly gorier than M3gan, which was deliberately targeting a younger female demographic. Gleefully so. However, it’s obvious self-awareness means it never gets too darkly sickening.
Take it to the Banks
Elizabeth Banks is a popular comedic actress known for the Hunger Games movies, Magic Mike XXL and as a voice in The LEGO Movie. In 2015, she moved behind the camera for Pitch Perfect 2 (another franchise in which she featured). Her 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels was a critical and commercial disaster, but in addition was unfairly decried as a failed litmus test for audience’s desire to watch female-fronted and proudly feminist action movies. She has spoken of how she is putting this phase of her career on the line with Cocaine Bear.
It helps that she has made the canny choice to make a movie called Cocaine Bear, which allows her to flex some new directorial muscles. It is easily her strongest work to date. I hope she’s allowed to keep directing even if she has no real stylistic stamp to speak of (just like a lot of men, it must be said). For example, it would have been nice for the film to have any visual fun with its 1980s setting.
Similarly, everybody talks like it is 2023 with very aware and post-modern dialogue and delivery. The screenplay by Jimmy Warden (whose only previously produced work is a Netflix sequel, The Babysitter: Killer Queen) moves fast and is incredibly uncomplicated. It really is just about a bear that takes cocaine.
There is also some very likely influence from co-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), whose recognisable quasi-stoner vibes are a good fit for the material.
Banks gets serviceable performances from her cast, although Keri Russell is absent for too-long stretches to really make anything out of what is ostensibly the lead role. Ray Liotta also appears in his final role made before his death in 2022. Weta Workshop do some impressive effects work, blending motion capture with natural environments (much of which was shot in Ireland) quite effectively. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also a high-octane treat.
Cocaine Bear doesn’t quite stick the landing, with a third act that gets increasingly hard to watch (because the cinematography by John Guleserian is too dark) and some bizarre editing choices snapped me out of its charms. Still, this is an entertaining piece of popcorn cinema that will be best watched in a crowded theatre.
This is the time to shine for Cocaine Bear. The bear that ate cocaine. What more can you expect?
Cocaine Bear is in cinemas now.