There are few films that can deliver as succinctly and accurately on their title as Cocaine Bear does. There is a bear. She does cocaine. Hence, the Cocaine Bear of it all. But while the movie comes through on its gloriously stupid title, it still left me craving something extra. Sure, it might be strange to say that I wanted more from a movie called Cocaine Bear, but I expect a lot out of any film that promises a drug-fueled animal rampage — especially one directed by Elizabeth Banks and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
If all you need out of Cocaine Bear is the greatest hits from its trailer, then the movie is fun enough. Yes, a bear gets into a stash of cocaine, and yes, she proceeds to violently murder anyone who gets between her and her beloved drugs. The resulting film is goofy and gory, yet also strangely lacking, as Cocaine Bear spreads itself too thin with an ensemble cast of humans who can’t hold a candle to Cocaine Bear herself.
Cocaine Bear is a wild ride based on a true story.
Credit: Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures
As bananas as it sounds, Cocaine Bear is rooted in fact. In 1985, drug smuggler Andrew Thornton (Matthew Rhys) dropped millions of dollars worth of cocaine from a plane flying over Georgia. A black bear in Chattahoochee National Forest found said cocaine and ingested it, dying from an overdose. Cocaine Bear imagines what would have happened had that bear not died immediately but instead embarked upon a cocaine-fueled killing spree.
It wouldn’t be a killing spree without some people to terrorize, and Cocaine Bear introduces a slew of characters who most certainly did not expect their day at Chattahoochee National Forest to involve a bear on cocaine. Among them is concerned mother Sari (Keri Russell), who is looking for her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) and Dee Dee’s friend Henry (Christian Convery) after learning they’ve skipped school. Sari teams up with Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and animal rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to help track them down. Then, there’s drug dealers Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), sent by drug smuggler Syd Dentwood (the late, great Ray Liotta) to collect the lost cocaine. Hot on their trail is police officer Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). It’s not long before they all cross paths with Cocaine Bear.
Cocaine Bear is a star.
Credit: Universal Pictures
Whether she’s ramming down doors or snorting a line off a severed leg, there’s no doubt that Cocaine Bear (aka Cokey) is a cinematic beast. Her luscious fur and cocaine-smeared muzzle position her right at the intersection of adorable forest creature and terrifying killing machine. At one point, after tearing a hiker to shreds and letting out a magnificent roar, Cokey takes a second to admire a passing butterfly. The duality of bear!
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Speaking of duality, Banks nails the simultaneous ridiculousness and terror inherent to the concept of a “cocaine bear” in each of the film’s genre-bending attack scenes. A tense standoff in a park visitor center turns Cokey into the stuff of slasher nightmares. When charging after an ambulance, Cokey displays athletic skills right out of a high-octane action movie. Yet Cokey can get a little silly too, scooting along the ground on her back or cuddling up to a terrified human who should be honored to be within spitting distance of this bear icon. In fact, we should all be honored to be watching the birth of a new horror legend, as Cokey lights up the screen whenever she’s around. There’s just one problem…
Cocaine Bear doesn’t have enough Cocaine Bear.
Credit: Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures
Cocaine Bear is full of nicely committed performances, with special shout-outs to Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr. for their buddy dynamic, and to Convery for his wired turn as a kid who may have done some cocaine. However, there are so many disparate characters that Cocaine Bear ends up feeling more scattered than a stash of cocaine in the Georgia mountains.
Banks and writer Jimmy Warden do their best to ground their ensemble with emotionally resonant backstories, such as Eddie mourning his dead wife or Dee Dee and Sari arguing about Sari’s new boyfriend. However, these plotlines clash with the otherwise wild tone of Cocaine Bear, and in the film’s rush to resolve all of them neatly, they lose their potency.
I did not come to the movies to see Cocaine Human.
But Cocaine Bear‘s greatest sin of all is that in spending so much time with these stories, it robs us of precious time with its titular beast. After all, I did not come to the movies to see Cocaine Human. I came to the movies to see Cocaine Bear. Banks and Warden really only show us Cokey through the eyes of its human characters, a move that helps give her a wee bit of Jaws-esque mystique but squanders the concept’s comedic potential. Would you believe we never see Cokey discover cocaine for the first time? What kind of insanity would the film have been able to wring out of that first high? And what is the world like through the eyes of a coked-out bear? Cocaine Bear keeps its star at too much of a distance for us to truly tell, and that’s a shame.
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This isn’t to say that Cocaine Bear doesn’t deliver its fair share of laughs and thrills. It has genuinely laugh-out-loud moments — Ehrenreich’s delivery of “A BEAR did COCAINE!” is immaculate — and its best kills will leave you hooting and hollering with glee. But as fun and stupid as Cocaine Bear is, you can’t help but think while watching that it could have been even more fun and even more stupid. Instead, the movie goes into cruise control between bear-centric set pieces, almost as if it got too high on its own premise to push itself to truly gonzo heights. Cocaine Bear herself is an instant legend; I just wish I could say the same about her star vehicle.
Cocaine Bear hits theaters Feb. 24.