Perhaps every few years audiences need a new Snakes On a Plane, a film that delivers exactly what it promises and nothing more. Cocaine Bear is that movie for 2023. You’re coming to see Cocaine Bear because you want to see a bear high as a kite on coke, and that’s exactly what you get! What this awesomely unchained flick does is leave you high on a supply of laughs, gore, and yes, a bear doing tons and tons of cocaine! Who needs a show like Snowfall when you’ve got Cocaine Bear? There’s so much coke powdering the joint it’d make Scarface jealous.
Far and away the best film directed by Elizabeth Banks, Cocaine Bear is based on the wild true story of a black bear discovered in the forests of Georgia having digested about 75-pounds of cocaine that had been dropped from an airplane by an idiotic smuggler. I’m pretty sure the rest of the film is entirely fictional. At least I hope it is. Lemme take that back, I hope Jimmy Warden’s script is entirely taken from reality (it’s not), because that would be amazing.
The bear is, get this, the star of Cocaine Bear! The colorful crew of human misfits is basically a movable feast for the insane animal, but they’re also pretty interesting. Those who live long enough to be, anyway. The film is driven by a pair of drug smugglers, Daveed and Eddie, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich, respectively. Eddie is a heartbroken guy wallowing in misery, which pisses off Daveed who just wants to get the job done of finding the missing coke that was dumped along the Chattahoochee. The late Ray Liotta plays their boss and Eddie’s father, who can’t afford to lose even a single ounce of the white stuff. Then there’s Keri Russell as single mom Sari, who goes off in search of her 13-year-old daughter and her best friend (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) who skipped school to venture into the park. There’s also Margo Martindale, chewing much scenery as a gun-toting park ranger too high-strung to be carrying around any weapon. Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays the detective who has been hot on the drug dealers’ trail, but all he really wants is to get back home to his new puppy.
None of these characters have a ton to do, but they are drawn just enough that we give a damn when some of them meet their grisly fate at the business end of a coked-up bear’s claws. What may surprise some people is how grisly the movie actually is, with some folks literally ripped apart, thrown face down from moving vehicles, and, in one case, shot point blank in the head by someone who shouldn’t have been carrying a gun. All of the violence is comically over-the-top, which fits the overall tone of the movie, and Banks does a good job of keeping that tone steady for much of the way. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bear blitzed out of its mind chase down a fleeing ambulance like it was Action Jackson.
It’s also clear that some tinkering must have gone into the screenplay. Russell’s character is presented as a lead but she’s too straight-laced to match the B-movie vibe, and at some point the film belongs to, well, the cocaine bear obviously, but also Jackson and Ehrenreich. The buddy-comedy dynamic between them keeps the film pretty funny when the bear isn’t around causing havok. It should also be said that Martindale and Whitlock, two pros who can make fun of themselves better than anybody, are also perfect for this silly material. Also winners are the geniuses at WETA for creating the ferocious digital omnivore, whose expressive face can be both delightful and terrifying.
Cocaine Bear does crash back down to earth in the final stretch, but no high lasts forever. Yogi Bear ain’t got shit on the Cocaine Bear. The film begins with a series of old anti-drug PSAs, “This is your brain on drugs”, but by the end of the movie our brains have been fried like an egg. And like any addict, we’re gonna need another hit of Cocaine Bear.
Cocaine Bear opens in theaters on February 24th.