Cocaine Bear (2023)
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Written by Jimmy Warden
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Aditya Sood,
Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, and Brian Duffield
Rated R, 95m
Ah, the unapologetic B-movie. How I do enjoy thee.
We don’t see enough of these anymore, in this era of big-budget franchises and series reboots; certainly not ones that actually make it to theaters. And that’s a shame, since some of my favorite films are guilty pleasure B-movies like 1998’s Deep Rising, with its cheesy effects and a cast that is clearly having all kinds of fun. Luckily, we now have Cocaine Bear, which isn’t trying to do anything other than make you laugh while watching a coked-up murder beast do terrible things to a cast of hapless victims, and, thankfully, it mostly works.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the basic plot: A drug smuggler drops a bunch of cocaine out of a plane before falling to his death, and a black bear stumbles across the drugs and develops a taste for them and goes on a rampage. A bunch of fairly ridiculous people find themselves in the coked-out ursine beast’s path, and hilarious murder/death ensues. The fun lies in the details, because instead of just getting a killer bear movie, we also get something of a love letter to the movies of the 80’s and their casts of precocious kids, inept criminals, and terrible teens with surprising moments of wisdom. This was the era of E.T., Heathers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Beetlejuice, and it’s not hard to see some of the character tropes of the time in our cast of hapless “heroes” here. Spielberg’s films in general were also apparently an influence, and you can see that here, too.
First we have Keri Russell’s (The Americans, Antlers) single-mom nurse, trying to start a new relationship with a guy her pre-teen daughter Dee Dee, played by Brooklynn Prince (The Lego Movie 2), isn’t thrilled about having to share her mom with. Dee Dee comes with a best friend named Henry, played by scene-stealing Christian Convery (Supernatural, Descendants 3). When the two kids skip school to go paint at the nearby National Park, they have no idea that they’re walking into danger, and once she discovers they are missing, Russell’s Sari follows them.
Then we have O’Shea Jackson’s Daveed (Straight Outta Compton), whose drug kingpin boss Syd — Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Cop Land) in one his final roles — needs to retrieve all that cocaine, seeing as the cartel behind it all isn’t happy that it has gone missing. Syd tasks Daveed to retrieve it, and to drag Syd’s son Eddie along in the hope that it will snap him out of the downward spiral his life has become following his wife’s death. Daveed isn’t thrilled about this, since Eddie, played by Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hail, Caesar!) is a sobbing mess. He’ll find himself even less thrilled to learn he’s pursued by Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s (The Wire, Cedar Rapids) Detective Bob, whose years-long attempt to take down Syd’s operation will lead him to the Park as well.
Throw in Margo Martindale’s (The Americans, Dexter) trigger-happy, amorous Forest Ranger and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family) as the oblivious object of her affections, add in three wannabee teen thugs (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna) and two doomed paramedics (Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss), and witness Shakespeare’s classic bit of stage direction “Exit, pursued by bear” come to life in funny, violent, and gory ways.
That it all works as well as it does is kind of a surprise. Not because of any questions of talent — the cast is uniformly great, with Convery and Ehrenreich really standing out — or Banks’ skill as a director. This isn’t her first film by any stretch, although the tone is certainly vastly different than the Pitch Perfect films. It’s a challenge to get this sort of thing right when you’re threading the horror-comedy needle. And with a cast this large, you have to develop enough for the audience to care about before you feed them to the titular bear. With the film’s 95-minute runtime, they just manage to pull that off by playing into those 80’s-style character tropes to give us the broad strokes, and just enough quirky character moments early on to make them more than the stock characters they easily could be.
On the horror side, be prepared for lots of blood and gore, because this film leans hard into the red stuff. Also be prepared to find yourself laughing while people are being horribly murdered, because Banks and company have found that right balance between dark comedy and violence that moves so much of it into the absurd. The over-the-top violence becomes part of the joke, and based on the reactions of the audience I saw the film with, they made that joke land to great effect.
The Bear itself is a Wētā FX creation, and overall is a pretty realistic monster for our cast to be eaten by, with a few notable moments where you can’t help but go “yeah, not a real bear”. Though to be fair, it all works in the kind of movie this is. You did sign up for Cocaine Bear, after all, so realism isn’t actually meant to be on the menu here. The film does take the time to give the Bear something of a character, which is good since you see so much of it, and while Jaws is clearly an influence on the film, nobody wanted to see Bruce the Shark as much as you’ll see the Bear here.
It is not a perfect film, of course. Just because we got just enough character development to make our cast engaging doesn’t mean that they aren’t drawn fairly thin. The third act loses a lot of the momentum of the first two, and there’s a bit where a different kind of 80’s movie tone becomes the dominant one, and that makes clear how much this film is juggling genres. You have a monster movie, and a man-vs-nature movie, a drug-comedy, a crime-comedy, a teen comedy, and more all worked in here, and it does hold up pretty well for most of the runtime, but not for all of the runtime. And the ending may not have the punch you think it should, though the ending we get is clearly what the filmmakers wanted. It didn’t bother me — in fact, I quite liked the ending — but I could tell that some of the audience I saw it with wanted more.
In the end, I laughed a lot. It was great to see Ray Liotta playing into his comedic strengths (something we saw far too rarely), and I ask myself again why Alden Ehrenreich isn’t a bigger star. Christian Convery is one of those child stars who is so good you hope you can watch them have a long career without the drama and trauma so many young actors face as they move from child to adult. The violence and gore really did hit that rare balance with the comedy for me, in the same way that the ’87 Evil Dead II did. And I haven’t even mentioned the 80’s score by Mark Mothersbaugh, which, as a guy who was a teen in the 80’s, was all kinds of wonderful nostalgia fuel.
Is it a great film? No, no it is not, but it is a fun film, and that is clearly what Banks and company set out to make. An apologetically B-movie movie, and that’s a good thing. A recent news story about a stash of cocaine found off the New Zealand coast has led to jokes about Cocaine Shark, and while Banks was joking herself when she responded that she’d be up for it, I can’t help think that I’d be looking forward to seeing what she and her producers came up with, especially if we could get some of this cast back.