Look, I like smart, elevated, allegorical horror as much as the next pretentious film nerd with a mediocre movie blog. The past two reviews on this site, Skinamarink and The Outwaters, were both focused on how much I appreciated the surreal, avant-garde risks those films took, and the unconventional way they approached their stories and scares. I really, really enjoyed those movies.
But sometimes, you just want to watch some ridiculous, brainless mayhem.
Enter: Cocaine Bear.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks and produced by the infallible duo that is Chris Miller and Phil Lord, Cocaine Bear is (EXTREMELY) loosely based on the true story of a black bear in 1985 who ate 75 pounds of cocaine and then pretty much immediately went into cardiac arrest and died. More realistically, however, the film is likely based on the popular copypasta about the incident that’s been making the rounds on the internet for quite some time now:
Cocaine Bear takes that hypothetical premise and runs with it, much in the very same tongue-in-cheek way that Snakes on a Plane did decades earlier with its equally simplistic concept. Now, with films like this, there’s generally two ways it can go down: First, there’s the Blood and Honey route, where the initial concept for the film is all it really has going for it. These films cynically think that the premise alone is enough to drive ticket sales, and put absolutely no other effort whatsoever into actually delivering a serviceable final product. On the flip side of this spectrum, you have films like Black Sheep, who use the initially silly little nugget of an idea to expand into a genuinely fun, clever, and memorable experience that maximizes the full potential of even the most ridiculous story pitches.
And frankly, Cocaine Bear could have easily gone either way. On the one hand, it’s about a bear on cocaine. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cinema right there. The early buzz was solid, and even the less favorable reviews somehow found a way to make the film sound like an absolute riot. Seriously, read this snippet from the Associated Press review for the film, which was resoundingly negative:
“Banks and screenwriter Jimmy Warden have created a mashup of Quentin Tarantino bloodfests, Sam Raimi’s scare tactics and the Coen brothers’ absurdity.”
Do… do they think that’s bad? Do they not realize that they just pitched the perfect movie? Tarantino, Raimi, and the Coen brothers; That’s B-movie bingo right there, baby.
But then again, on the other hand, I did see Banks’s Charlie’s Angel reboot. So really, it was 50/50.
And, dear reader, let me assure you that, having seen the film, I can happily report that it is indeed about a bear on cocaine. Frankly, that’s half the battle won already, as far as I’m concerned.
Cocaine Bear is some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater in ages. This is partially due to the great theater crowd I happened to be with Saturday night, a high-energy and excitable bunch who shrieked, gasped, and laughed on cue whenever the film prompted those reactions. This is also partially due to the rather irresponsibly large amount of tequila I had in my system at the time. But mostly, it’s because at no point did the movie take itself more seriously than a something called Cocaine Bear should reasonably be.
Despite a fair amount of guts and gore, Cocaine Bear is a comedy first and foremost, and it’s in this particularly genre that it succeeds with the most gusto. The dialogue is snappy and sharp without ever being too obnoxiously twee or self-aware. The cast is excellent, with nearly everyone on screen sharing the same deft mastery of timing and physical goofiness. It’s rare that I get to say this, but the child actors in the film really carried the lion’s share of the film’s hilarity. I knew I was in for a good time when two middle-school-aged kids ate spoon-fulls of uncut coke in the first ten minutes of the movie. The kids’ reactions to the sheer insanity of everything happening around them was an absolute highlight of an already delightful experience.
That isn’t to say that the adults were slacking in any capacity. Solo’s Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s chemistry as the closest thing the film has to real protagonists is a gem to watch. If you’ve seen Bullet Train, think Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as Tangerine and Lemon: A buddy comedy happening amidst an entirely different genre of film occurring in the background. The same thing can be said for Margo Martindale’s park ranger character, who feels like she stepped out of Fargo into, as the AP reviewer so astutely stated, a Sam Raimi Evil Dead movie. Fun cameo roles from Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr., and that one mustachioed guy from Tik-Tok that makes those funny videos about working at Ikea, all add additional quirk and charm to the film’s stack cast of lovable weirdos. And of course, in his final film role, the late, great Ray Liotta plays a wonderfully slimy and desperate drug lord who does an excellent job playing the straight man to the sheer lunacy unfolding in his midst.
If there’s any real weak link in the film, it’s Keri Russell. Frankly, this isn’t really a knock against her so much as the script, as she isn’t given much to do as the doting mother searching for her lost daughter in a coke-addict-bear-infested forest. As someone who’s a big fan of her work, it’s a real shame to see someone with such range being wasted in such an otherwise over-the-top movie. You do get to see her with Margo Martindale a decent amount though, and her real-life husband Matthew Rhys makes a silly little appearance as an ill-fated drug smuggler at the beginning of the film, so fans of The Americans get a nice little reunion.
And of course, no discussion of Cocaine Bear would be complete without mentioning the star of the show herself. The titular coked-up black bear is fantastic. Brought to life by the wizards at Weta Digital, she’s a cute, cuddly creature full of personality, who also just happens to be an unstoppable, drug-addled apex predator. In the same scene she can go from being completely adorable to utterly terrifying, which is a testament to not only the effects department but the film’s script and Banks’s smart direction. I do love how the film never goes out of its way to vilify the animal; It’s not its fault that it developed a coke habit, and for most of the film, it’s only lashing out the same way a real creature would under the same circumstances.
Well, for the most part. She also kills for more cocaine on a few occasions, but who amongst us can say we haven’t done the same?
It’s in these moments that the film’s horror elements get to shine. This is a bloody film, and the light-hearted characters and goofy dialogue really helps to sell the tonal shifts at play here exceptionally well. Characters are dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled, all in brutal, explicit detail. This is a movie that will have you howling with laughter and groaning from disgust within the same two-minute span, and I really, really appreciate it.
But while the film on the whole has a brisk, lean pace that eschews excessive set-up or unnecessary melodrama in favor of its more wacky, violent subject matter, the pacing really slows down in what I can only generously describe as the film’s third act. There’s no real climax to speak of, and the movie seems to set up a confrontation that never actually happens. Bizarre editing choices pop up out of nowhere, including a jarringly-redundant flashback to an unseen event that only happened moments prior, and the film resolves itself neatly in a bow without really putting in work to do so. By the end of the film, I’m hard pressed to say that anything really happened, outside of some ursine mayhem.
Then again, it’s a movie called Cocaine Bear, so I guess I shouldn’t really be expecting much more outside of what the title promises anyway.
If you want a dumb, fun, ridiculous way to kill 90 minutes, Cocaine Bear will certainly scratch that itch. And hopefully, this film’s inevitable success will usher in an entirely new subgenre of zoological horror, fueled solely by narcotics. If Hollywood wants a screenplay for Meth Panther or Horse Horse, I’m always available.
Do drugs and pet the wildlife, kids.