Cocaine Bear (2023): Review

Fangoria! Woo!
Hey, you have some blow? Cocaine Bear (2023)

Intensity 🩸🩸🩸 out of 🩸🩸🩸🩸🩸 for some grizzly carnage.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

Do bears get high in the woods? Can a coked-up bear outrun an ambulance? Just how dangerous is a bear on stimulants? You know you wanted to know this, right? So, now you get to find out, in the madcap horror comedy Cocaine Bear! This is a grisly (not grizzly… the bear is a black bear) romp through the forest. Watch a bear amped up with narcotics for some wildly entertaining moments. Elizabeth Banks continues her transformation from being an in-front-of-the-camera star to behind the camera, and she hits the comedic and gory tone just right with Cocaine Bear.

Inspired by true events! That is a usually dubious association that many horror movies will use to promote their films and give them the stamp of authenticity. But when a story as strange as this one makes that claim, it becomes legendary. As noted in Vanity Fair, and elsewhere, the movie holds true to these facts:

  • In 1985 Former cop turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton bailed out of his airplane after dropping 12 duffel bags (Millions of dollars) of cocaine into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Northern Georgia.
  • Thornton must have suffered an accident jumping out of his plane because his main chute did not open. Thornton slammed into a Knoxville Tennessee driveway, causing quite a news story.
  • A 175 lb. female black bear came into contact with the cocaine and overdosed. Sadly, she died in the forest having 3 -4 grams of cocaine in her bloodstream. Bears and cocaine do not mix, apparently.
  • Investigators never found the rest of the cocaine. Officials assumed that an elaborate Appalachian smuggling operation picked up the stash in the park.

But, that doesn’t make for a great gonzo horror movie, does it? Elizabeth Banks and her team have reimagined the story. What if, instead, the bear had found the cocaine, ingested it, got addicted and extremely aggressive?

Now THAT’S A MOVIE!

The buzz about this movie started generating last fall. It is surprising that a big studio like Universal was willing to take a chance on a movie with the taboo specter of cocaine as a central plot device. Normally, the major studios will avoid these taboos. But, clearly Universal sniffed out a winner. The trailer landed, and that cemented the desire to catch this cinema’s curiosity.

Keri Russell and Cokie in Cocaine Bear (2023)

Long story short: This movie is great fun. It is gory, and you of course find yourself rooting for the bear. It is blessed with a solid and talented veteran cast including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr. , Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock, Margo Martindale, Kristofer Hivju and the late, great Ray Liotta. In truth, if there is a weakness to Cocaine Bear it might be that there are so many characters that you spend a little more time with them and less time with the bear. On the plus side of that equation, for a horror fan… more bear victims!

The characters:

  • The drug kingpin boss Syd (Liotta) needs to recover the powdery drugs. He dispatches Eddie (Ehrenreich) and Daveed (Jackson Jr.) to got find the stash in the mountains.
  • The cops sniff out the potential for ditched narcotics in the forest. This calls for Officer Bob (Whitlock) to head out into the forest to check it out.
  • A nurse, Sari (Russell) tells her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) that they won’t be able to paint the waterfalls in the forest. The disappointed and rebellious Dee Dee ignores her. Dee Dee recruits her best friend Henry (Christian Convery) with her to go to the falls.
  • Upon discovering Dee Dee has disobeyed her, Sari enlists help. She eventually tracks the kids to the park and implores the Chattahoochee Park Ranger, Liz (Martindale), and the local wildlife expert Peter (Ferguson) to help her find the kids.

And guess what? They all end up encountering a coked-up bear in the woods. As will a bevy of other characters. And, as we all know, cocaine will make you more aggressive, make you feel invincible, and make you want more of the white stuff. That bear has motivation! Of course, you will find yourself rooting for the bear. You probably knew that going in. Go bear go!

Despite that this is Elizabeth Bank’s first horror directorial effort, she shows remarkable instincts for how to craft a great action horror sequence. Her experience working with James Gunn in Slither and Brightburn has certainly paid dividends. The timing of the comic beats consistently hit, and when called for, the big horror action set pieces are spectacular. You will remember the tree climbing sequence and the ambulance sequence forever.

Allan Henry, a veteran mo-cap performer played “Cokie” the bear. Henry had done previous mo-cap stunt work in The Jungle Book, The Hobbit, and Planet of the Apes. For Cocaine Bear, Henry wore a bear suit with stilts and as IndieWire describes, created a convincing animated bear. So, do not worry, no bears were high for the creation of this movie. Just one really good bear performer and digital magic.

Because the movie had so many characters, most of them don’t have much depth to them, some of them being reduced to one trick (or one joke) ponies. But the performances for what they are given are solid. And, this is a lighter fare film, meant to be a fun romp, and that is what it is. If you go into a movie titled Cocaine Bear, you are probably not concerned with the taboos.

Also, is it wrong to want the kids to get mauled by the bear? Maybe? Consider me guilty as charged. The casualness that cocaine is presented with may be cringe-inducing, but I doubt that anyone with ’80s-level drug aversions will be the target audience for this. Because of the initial success ($52 million in two weeks, on a $35 million budget, which is a pretty big risk given the nature of this film) you can expect the copycat cocaine horror movies to go into production. Regrettable, but inevitable, I suppose.

Cocaine Bear is currently in wide release in Theaters, and given that I was in a nearly full matinee showing, it may be in the cinemas for a few more weeks, Though it is likely also to hit streaming in a couple of weeks since Universal has a 17-day streaming release window. It is rated R for copious use of narcotics (by a bear, mostly), lots of profanity, and some pretty grisly violent sequences. (Yay!)

Review by Eric Li

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