REVIEW: “Cocaine Bear” (2023)

It’s hard to go into a movie called “Cocaine Bear” without having at least some sense of what you’re getting into. And if you’ve caught even a glimpse of the trailer, it’s even clearer what director Elizabeth Banks and her attractive cast of friends are going for. But no amount of self-awareness can make this schlocky, gore-filled dark comedy as fun as it desperately wants to be. Not even close.

“Cocaine Bear” is a movie that begs to be judged by the “it knows exactly what it is” standard. Sure it has its moments, and Banks tosses out all the rules. But it works so hard at being wild and irreverent that it seems to forget everything else. Stuff like good characters, a remotely interesting story, genuine humor, or even the slightest reason to care about anything we’re seeing. “Just go with it” is sure to be a common response, and I’m happy for those who are able to do it. But I needed more out of Jimmy Warden’s threadbare script.

It’s true that “Cocaine Bear” is open and unapologetic about its intentions (again, just look at its title). And if you stretch it far enough you might get lucky and find an actual theme. But for the most part, whenever the movie departs from its undeniably goofy and entertaining central conceit, the cracks start to show. In other words, whenever the film’s blitzed CGI American black bear isn’t gnawing off human limbs or slicing open abdomens, the movie crumbles.

The story is very loosely based on true events. In December of 1985, former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler Andrew Carter Thornton II (played briefly in the film by Matthew Rhys) was transporting cocaine from Columbia in a Cessna 404. Feeling his plane was overloaded, Thornton began dumping packages of coke and eventually jumped out himself. But his parachute malfunctioned and he fell to his death near Knoxville, Tennessee. Three months later a dead black bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, surrounded by opened packages of blow. It has been nicknamed the Cocaine Bear and is currently on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington.

All of that (except the part about the bear dying) takes place within the first two minutes of the movie. From there it’s all make-believe as the coke-craving bear slashes, maims, and mauls a gaggle of bland, disposable characters as it looks for its next fix. And that’s the film’s bread and butter. The problem is, we don’t get much of that at all. I only remember three noteworthy scenes of delightfully over-the-top bear savagery.

That means most of our time is spent stuck with the patently uninteresting and remarkably unfunny human characters. Paper-thin story aside, no one we meet are given an inch of depth and there’s barely a human trait to be found. It’s hard to even refer to them as sketches considering how shallow and fruitless they all are (and I do mean ALL of them). There are some really good names wasted here – Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Ray Liotta (in his final role). They’re all trapped inside a movie that spends more time aping other ideas that building on its one original one.

Russell plays a mother looking for her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her young friend (Christian Convery). Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr play smugglers sent by a drug kingpin named Syd (Liotta) to find and retrieve the cocaine. Martindale plays a forest Ranger while Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays an animal rights activist. Isiah Whitlock Jr plays a police detective trying to bring down Syd’s organization. Through their own simplistic and convenient reasons, all find themselves in the Chattahoochee National Forest with the eponymous bear running wild. And that’s the story. All of it. Seriously.

The bar for “Cocaine Bear” was pretty low meaning this should have been a slam dunk. It could have really went wild with the B-movie schlock. It could have worked great as a Hollywood satire. As it is, everything hinges on the one big joke, and that would be fine except Banks doesn’t do nearly enough with it. That leaves us in the company of a dull and witless collection of human characters, none of whom register as interesting or (more importantly in this case) funny. Their low-rung, force-fed attempts at humor land with a deafening thud. Yet another thing that left me thinking of the many ways that this could have gone better. But hey, at least it “knows exactly what it is”. “Cocaine Bear” is now showing in theaters.


14 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Cocaine Bear” (2023)

  1. Damn… just based on the premise itself. It would’ve looked like good B-movie fun but not by much. At least Snakes on a Plane lived up to what it was meant to be and was fun as fuck.

  2. I think I am in agreement, unfortunately. I actually ended up going to see this because it was Elizabeth Banks directing! It wasn’t really about the ripped-from-the-headlines bonkers idea. It’s really frustrating how she ends up trying to build out this human drama when all you want to see is a bear high on cocaine doing bear-on-cocaine things! A let down for sure.

    • Exactly. It should have been a slam-dunk. The bar wasn’t particularly high. But man, I found it to be frustratingly dull mainly because of its focus on the uninteresting and unfunny human characters. Talk about missing the target.

  3. I am always interested in Elizabeth Banks’ projects, and I guess for whatever reason she decided the world needed a wild-ass, wild-animal film at this time. I was only intrigued by this because of her involvement, and figured it would be laugh-out-loud chaos. It doesn’t sound like you had too many laughs…

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