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Cocaine Bear

There will be Before “Cocaine Bear” and After “Cocaine Bear.” This is how we will mark time from now on as a society. That’s how transformative this motion picture is.

OK, perhaps it’s not that profound. But it is an incredible blast, especially if you have the benefit of seeing director Elizabeth Banks’ insanely violent comedy/thriller with a packed crowd. The communal experience is essential here. “Cocaine Bear” will bring people together. “Cocaine Bear” will save cinema.

That’s because “Cocaine Bear” knows exactly what it is and what it needs to do. It’s about a bear ... on cocaine. Comparisons to the 2006 disaster extravaganza “Snakes on a Plane” are inevitable, with its high-concept, wild-animal premise, as well as the giddy hype that preceded it. Both movies do precisely what their titles suggest, with a minimal desire to be more substantial or meaningful. The few times “Cocaine Bear” injects even a meager amount of sentimentality, the pacing starts to lag. This is not why we are here. We’re here to see a bear snort a bunch of cocaine, then go on a murderous rampage in the forest.

The fact that Banks’ film is based on a true story is just one of its many crazy components. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden has taken the basic facts—a 175-pound Georgia black bear ingested some cocaine that a drug smuggler dropped from an airplane in 1985—and imagined what might have happened if the bear hadn’t died, but rather sampled the stuff and gotten hooked. An eclectic ensemble of hikers, rangers, criminals, and police officers just happens to have the misfortune of getting in her way. They especially find themselves in trouble as they cross her path when she’s in need of her next fix. (And lest you think this is an anti-drug movie with a preachy, puritanical message, think again; it features a mocking montage of those 1980s “Just Say No” PSAs, including one from First Lady Nancy Reagan herself).

It's within the excess of the era that “Cocaine Bear” begins, with an unrecognizable Matthew Rhys maniacally dumping duffel bags of powder (and mixing in a line here and there) with the intent to retrieve them later. (Spoiler: He did not.) Several people go on the hunt for them, though, as they lay scattered throughout Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. They include a pair of mismatched buddy drug dealers (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.); their humorless boss (Ray Liotta in his final film role, recalling one of his signature performances in “Goodfellas”); and a police detective from the Kentucky town where the smuggler’s plane eventually crashed (Isiah Whitlock Jr., perfectly deadpan as ever).

Also wandering around the woods that day are a park ranger (a randy Margo Martindale) and a wildlife specialist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); a bunch of doofus teenagers; and a determined single mom (Keri Russell) looking for her 13-year-old daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her daughter’s friend (Christian Convery) who ditched school to visit the falls. (Both kids are great in a throwback way, reminiscent of the kinds of brash, profane characters you’d see in movies like “The Bad News Bears” or “The Goonies.” The boy’s reaction to discovering one of these illegal bundles is not fear, but rather a cheerful: “Let’s sell drugs together!”)

Much of the joy of “Cocaine Bear” comes from the look of the creature itself, which is surprisingly high-tech for a cheesy, silly movie. She’s been brought to life through a motion capture performance by stuntman Allan Henry and CGI from the legendary New Zealand house Weta FX. They’ve definitely amped up the movements and anthropomorphized the animal to a knowing extreme, but they achieve enough realism to make the bear’s attacks harrowing. You’ll laugh and squeal throughout, but you’ll also scream and squirm. The violence is often so graphic and so gory. Some of the gnarliest moments come not from the bear herself, but rather from all of these people being stupid and finding other ways to get injured.

For that reason and so many more, you’ll probably also find yourself rooting for the bear to succeed. She’s just so gleeful as she tears into brick after brick and gets a big whiff of the white stuff up her snoot. The ways in which she ingests cocaine are often quite clever, including doing a line off a leg she’s just severed. And one sequence, in particular, involving the marauding bear, a fleeing ambulance, and Depeche Mode’s catchy “Just Can’t Get Enough” is a tour de force of pacing and tone. Speaking of music, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score adds the perfect synth touch to these antics; similarly, the period-specific needle drops, costume, and production design are on point without being obvious parodies. The posters that adorn the teenage Prince’s walls are especially inspired.

Because “Cocaine Bear” does what it does so well for so long, it’s a disappointment that the filmmakers break from the action to make us care about these characters as actual people. Some standout supporting players do evolve in surprising ways, including Scott Seiss as a paramedic and Aaron Holliday as one of the obnoxious teens. But while the suspense that had carried the film for the first two-thirds of its brisk running time dips as it nears its conclusion, “Cocaine Bear” still emerges as a hell of a high. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Cocaine Bear movie poster

Cocaine Bear (2023)

Rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout.

95 minutes

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