We seem to have entered a point in time when absurd concepts are no longer doomed to fail at the box office. It wasn’t too long ago when a major studio could make a film like Snakes on a Plane but bungle the delivery by not fully grasping how to sell that sort project to the masses. Cinematic lunacy admittedly isn’t always an easy thing to sell, but now the process of marketing something like Elizabeth Banks' Cocaine Bear for general release has caught up to the maddening delights such a film promises. It's a perfect development, as the movie is so severely and ridiculously fun – just as nature intended.
Release Date: February 24, 2023
Directed By: Elizabeth Banks
Written By: Jimmy Warden
Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Aaron Holliday, with Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta
Rating: R, for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout.
The only thing you need to know about the true story that inspired screenwriter Jimmy Warden's darkly comic nature-based slasher film is that in 1985, a bear did cocaine. Past the point of the inciting incident that sees former narcotics officer Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys, in a deliciously brief cameo) dumping a bunch of illicit product throughout the southern United States, Cocaine Bear dives head first into its original and fictional fun.
Throughout the madness that follows, we’re treated to a mother (Keri Russell) trying to rescue her daughter, a pair of criminals (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson) making a valiant effort to track down the lost narcotics, and various authority figures (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Margo Martindale) upholding the offices they serve. All roads lead to the bear, as another fine Wētā FX creation is stampeding through the national park where the characters are wandering. It’s a recipe that doesn't end up being perfect, but it lands solid enough that it just might be habit forming for a cult audience – or at least a word of mouth success that wins over moviegoers through sheer will alone.
Cocaine Bear wastes no time jumping into the crazy, and it never lets up.
The tone and scope of Cocaine Bear is apparent from the opening title cards, which cite Wikipedia as its source of authority regarding the titular animals. The film doesn’t wink too hard at its audience, but it absolutely knows the lane it’s supposed to be travelling in and firmly adheres to the lines on either side. Audiences are going to watch Cocaine Bear to see humans battling against a grizzly, jacked up creature, and by damn that’s what you’re going to get.
At a lean 95 minutes, Elizabeth Banks and Jimmy Warden admirably cut to the chase on a concept that could have worn thin rather quickly. Light flashbacks and cutaways fill in knowledge gaps that the audience might have while the story unfolds. There’s still room for a bit more exposition to be provides, but the movie's lightning quick pace only adds to the craziness of what unfolds, and things never let up for a second.
In terms of the basic concept of Cocaine Bear, the DNA is very simple to break down. It mixes the carnage of a Friday the 13th-style slasher with the chaos and comedy of an Elmore Leonard-style crime story with added Spielbergian family matters like those in Jurassic Park. Such a variety of influences makes for a double edged sword though, as not all of the pieces are as fleshed out as they should be.
Cycling through several plotlines in a fairly short film, there are some flaws that hold things back just a bit.
With a heady combination of components to keep track of, the varying plots that make up the weird and wild whole on display do have some shortcomings. It feels like Cocaine Bear really wants to play partially as a commentary on the Reagan Administration’s “War on Drugs” at points, going as far as including snippets of infamous PSAs that ran throughout the ‘80s. That effort never fully lands, as beyond adding some color that establishes the period setting, there’s never really any exploration into the politics behind the pop culture artifacts.
Cocaine Bear does have quite a lot on its plate, with the movie shifting between the three storylines and having them intersect by the time the grand finale comes roaring in. It’s admirable how quickly and effectively the pieces slide into place, especially in the earlier acts of the film, but if one segment suffers the most, it’s Keri Russell’s character's quest to rescue her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) from the drugged-up ursine menace.
Whenever the focus is on the subplots involving Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson’s drug enforcers or Margo Martindale’s beleaguered park ranger, the energy is magnetic. The film actually feels more interested in telling those stories, which could have more easily added to the politically charged satire that Cocaine Bear seems to strive for.
This isn't to say Keri Russell or either of the child performers she’s working with are unwelcome in the larger scheme of things. Rather, they could be better integrated into the movie rather than feeling like a last minute addition to goose tension. This loose thread doesn't unravel the fun, as the speedy pacing moves things along at a rate where those issues barely register past recognizing.
It’s hard not to get high on the absolute insanity of Cocaine Bear, especially with a crowd.
The Jurassic franchise DNA present in Cocaine Bear is part of what makes it all a delight to behold. Taking some cues from the Jurassic World trilogy in particular, we’re treated to a tale that shows humanity and nature facing off in grand fashion. Those who think they can tame the wild are subjected to their just desserts, while the people who respect their fellow creatures learn a valuable, non-fatal lesson.
"Respect" is a word that definitely encapsulates why Cocaine Bear succeeds as much as it does. Everyone involved, from the execs that greenlit it to the marketing folks that have drawn several pristine lines of tone and expectations, knows what type of movie this is. At a time when Universal seems to be excelling with off kilter delights like Violent Night and the upcoming Will Ferrell/Jamie Foxx comedy Strays, this picture’s arrival seems to signal that the studio is gleefully embracing cinematic madness.
Cinemas need and deserve movies that are pure and uncut bundles of nasty fun like Cocaine Bear. With the ecosystem of theaters and streaming undergoing huge shakeups, potential success stories like this one are proving that viewers aren’t merely looking for comic book adaptations, prestige dramas, or legacy franchises to draw them back to the movies. People want big screen entertainment that can really get its claws into them, and Cocaine Bear is another example of what happens when you play to that need – but do so while respecting why those projects are so desirable in the first place.
We’ve got another potential word of mouth success story on our hands, as those who get the first bumps off of Cocaine Bear’s supply just might try to pressure their friends and loved ones into doing the same. When it comes to Elizabeth Banks’ rollicking ramble through the woods of Georgia, it's not a lethal or life threatening decision to just say yes.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.