If you are the kind of person who sees that there is a movie called Cocaine Bear about a bear who does cocaine and thinks, “I would like to see the movie called Cocaine Bear about a bear who does cocaine,” then you will enjoy the movie called Cocaine Bear about a bear who does cocaine. I was in an audience full of such people, laughing so hard I missed many a line. While some naysayers feared a disappointment on the level of Snakes on a Plane, Cocaine Bear knows exactly what kind of movie it is and continually gives the audience exactly what it wants, which is a bear who does cocaine. Of course, with producers like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie), and Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) onboard, I knew the film would have a wonderful sense of humor about itself.
The Babysitter: Killer Queen screenwriter Jimmy Warden based the film on an actual bear who did cocaine, though it killed no one and tragically died. Moment of silence for the OG Cocaine Bear, thank you for your sacrifice, hope you’re not looking down from Bear Heaven and finding the idea of someone making a movie where you gruesomely tear apart multiple people disrespectful. In the film, as in real life, the cocaine comes from a drug smuggler who drops it out of a plane, and now there are duffel bags of cocaine all over the Chattahoochee National Forest. One unsuspecting bear will do cocaine and become Cocaine Bear, and the rest is cinematic history.
After an opening hit of mayhem, the film spends its first act introducing a whole host of characters from multiple walks of life with conflicting agendas, and you may become a little impatient because you just want more bear action. But thanks to some sharp writing and an overqualified cast, you end up caring enough about these characters to not want them to die horribly, but not enough not to laugh when they die horribly.
Nurse Sari (Keri Russell) is searching for her daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who went off into the forest with her best friend, Henry (Christian Convery). Drug lord Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his fixer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), off into the forest to retrieve the lost cocaine. Detective Bob (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) goes off into the forest to take down Syd. Forest Ranger Liz (character actress Margo Martindale) and animal rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) lead Sari into the forest to look for her kid. And now we’ve come full cir—wait, there’s also a trio of teen hooligans for some reason.
Look, there are a lot of characters in this movie because Cocaine Bear needs people to kill, and we need people to root for, and it’s impressive how Warden weaves all of these characters together so that the film doesn’t feel overstuffed. Instead, the sheer size of the cast simply makes the movie even funnier because they’re all in their own little movies and we’re waiting with anticipation for them to discover what movie they are actually in (a movie called Cocaine Bear about a bear who does cocaine).
Lest you think the film relies on the one joke I have been making throughout this entire review, it does not! The film’s full of little throwaway jokes and specific character details that lesser films wouldn’t bother with, one highlight being a scene in which Henry tries to convince Dee Dee that he, a literal child, has done cocaine. Convery low-key steals the film with his sweet Southern innocence; his every-line delivery is perfectly calibrated to be a laugh line without overplaying it. Also, he literally refers to the bear who does cocaine as Cocaine Bear, so bless his heart.
Each cast member finds the right note to play their character, from Russell’s very grounded mom to Ferguson’s extremely silly PETAphile, and yet the film doesn’t feel like a tonal mishmash, generally earning its more serious moments. Generally. While the friendship between Daveed and Eddie emerges as the emotional core of the film, I can’t say I particularly cared about their relationship or the latter’s grief about his wife, though I did appreciate how Warden turns a running gag into a sweet moment between the two of them because I’m a sucker for that shit.
But I didn’t come here to have emotions! I came here to see a movie called Cocaine Bear about a bear who does cocaine! And hoo boy, does this bear do cocaine! While the trailers and marketing sold a film in which a bear does cocaine, this is actually a film in which a bear does cocaine and then KEEPS DOING MORE COCAINE. That’s Cocaine Bear’s motivation! To do more cocaine! What this means is that whenever you see cocaine in a scene, you know Cocaine Bear is gonna be attracted to that cocaine. Throughout the entire film, I could feel the charge in the audience when we spotted cocaine in a scene and realized what was going to happen. Cocaine Bear really likes cocaine. Eating it, snorting it, whatever. Kudos to the visual effects team for creating a pretty realistic-looking black bear because who’s going to train an actual black bear to DO A LINE OF COCAINE OFF A SEVERED LEG!
Director Elizabeth Banks proved with her underrated Charlie’s Angels movie that she knows her way around action-comedy, and she stages plenty of delightful scenes here, milking the suspense of Cocaine Bear’s appearance not necessarily to make the audience feel tense but to deliberately withhold the burst of violence she knows we’re anticipating to make each one feel like a treat. And what a gory treat! The kills get progressively more gnarly, and I appreciated the use of practical effects in the various dismemberments. Plus, some people die by other means! Just some though. The cause of death for most people in this movie is Cocaine Bear. As I heard someone say walking out of the theater, “Every time there was an opportunity for it to be the bear, it was the bear.”
The subplots satisfyingly converge over the course of the film—there’s an unnecessary heel turn that has no impact and adds nothing, and I’ve said the same thing three times because that’s how much that didn’t work for me—and the way the character drama and bear antics meld in the climax is pretty glorious.
Candyman cinematographer John Guleserian, unfortunately, falls victim to the modern era’s inability to shoot night scenes; while his camerawork in the day scenes shows a good eye, the murkiness of the night scenes makes it very hard to see any of the character’s facial expressions or truly appreciate the shot compositions apart from one baller-ass pan-up to Cocaine Bear. Editor Joel Negron cuts at the right moments to keep Cocaine Bear pleasantly threatening but didn’t have the heart to tell Banks and Warden that a repeated quick-cut fantasy gag never really lands because they… don’t actually have anything funny in them apart from the last one that almost justifies the whole thing. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh understands the assignment completely and delivers a score that is just the right amount of jaunty, and I have no notes.
Cocaine Bear has no grand ambitions or smart subtext beyond “drugs are bad,” which is actually text and doesn’t count. But, like M3GAN before it, it does far more than simply coast on its meme-friendly premise, taking the time to create a constellation of characters pulled into Cocaine Bear’s orbit and constantly finding variations on how exactly these characters can be killed. I can’t wait for Cocaine Bear 2: Bear in the City.