Connect with us


‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: Elizabeth Banks’ Dark Comedy Is Infectious, No-Apologies Entertainment



The cocaine was dropped in September, and the bear was found in December.

According to officials interviewed by reporters in 1985, police officers located the 175-pound apex predator surrounded by 40 opened containers of the drug in question. The story — as printed in The New York Times at least — was brief, barely even 100 words long. But the details — the plane piloted by a cop turned smuggler, the offloaded drugs, the Draconian Nixon-era “War on Drugs,” the forest, the bear on blow — are catnip for the imagination.

Cocaine Bear

The Bottom Line

No thoughts, just vibes.

Elizabeth Banks’ highly anticipated adventure Cocaine Bear gorges on the “what ifs” of the case. What if the bear encountered people before it died? What if there were witnesses to its blood-thirsty addiction? What if it was a mother, and a symbol for humanity’s idiotic hubris in the natural world?

Don’t be turned off by that last question — heady and philosophical as it seems — because the film doesn’t linger too long on it: Cocaine Bear isn’t in the business of sacrificing antics for a greater purpose. It aims for maximum entertainment, reveling in farce and gnarly killings to create an experience that keeps you on your toes even if the details get murky upon further reflection.

Banks, who directed (her third feature-length outing behind the camera, following Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels), and Jimmy Warden, who wrote the screenplay, starts with what we know to be true: A former Kentucky narcotics officer turned drug smuggler disposes of packages of cocaine before jumping from a malfunctioning plane. The AmericansMatthew Rhys makes a cameo as the man, Andrew Thornton II, who unceremoniously plummets to his death after his parachute fails. Archival footage of the crash’s aftermath follows the opening sequence. Cocaine Bear does, in general, a smart job of weaving real newsreels and anti-drug commercials into the narrative. They add winking humor and reminders that there’s truth to this far-out tale.

Among the authorities huddled over the blanket-covered body, as the story settles into fiction, are Bob, a local detective played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., and rookie cop Reba (Ayoola Smart). They inspect the scene and connect Thornton’s death to a broader drug operation run by a notorious kingpin, Syd, whom Bob’s been chasing for years. Determined to catch him, the bumbling detective heads into Georgia’s Blood Mountain to find the abandoned cocaine. Elsewhere, Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles) hears news of the crash and enlists his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and trusted fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve the lost goods.

The other characters — a lively, jittery and humorous bunch — who wind up in the forest are not as obsessed with the white powder. There are the tourists — a couple planning their future — who are the first people to come across the coked-out bear. Their untimely demise is a sacrifice at the altar of this harrowing ride. Sari (Keri Russell, a second Americans alum), a recently divorced nurse, is another figure who finds herself trudging through the coniferous forest. She’s looking for her missing daughter Dee Dee (The Florida Project‘s Brooklynn Prince) and Dee Dee’s best friend Henry (Christian Convery), a precocious pair who ditched school to paint the rocky formation near a waterfall.

If you watched the Super Bowl (where an ad for the film premiered) or have even lazily perused the internet, you’ve likely come across Cokey, the star of Cocaine Bear. It’s probably time to note that no real bears were harmed in the making of this film, and that the CGI animal — modeled after the sun bear — probably exceeds expectations set by the deluge of promotional materials. Banks and Warden give Cokey hints of a personality, imbuing the animal with traits other than the exclusively homicidal. She is, after all, “a bear of the people.”

Because Cocaine Bear doesn’t take itself too seriously, you shouldn’t either. The creators toy with Cokey’s murderous tendencies, which are only triggered when she crosses paths with humans. An appetite for body horror is a prerequisite for fully appreciating the absurdity of the pain and torture inflicted upon people in the film: the chorus of shrill screams, limbs flying towards the camera, skin tearing like leather — you get the picture. Banks and Warden take immense and infectious joy in engineering these scenarios, ratcheting up the ridiculousness to volley with our nerves. One minute you’re chuckling at a zingy one-liner, the next you’re muttering “what the fuck” under your breath.

These moments help distract from the thin narrative, which hits shakier ground as it abandons fact and leans into fiction. There’s a threshold — at least for this critic — for contrivance that’s easily exceeded here. But the performers commit to the bit, keeping your attention from straying too far off course. Part of the fun of Cocaine Bear is wondering what Cokey will do next, and getting to know, even briefly, the characters who eventually cross paths with her. Take forest ranger Liz (Margo Martindale — that’s three from The Americans, for those keeping count), who’s in love with Peter, an oblivious PETA inspector played by a wig-wearing Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Or three teenagers who menace the park, causing ranger Liz, a stickler for rules, repeated headaches. Even the briefest cameos, like the one made by comedian and TikTok star Scott Seiss as a paramedic called halfway through the film, are a good time. (He and his partner, played by Kahyun Kim, nail one of the film’s funniest sequences.)

By today’s baggy runtime standards, Cocaine Bear‘s 90 minutes qualify as brisk and breezy. It’s a “no thoughts, just vibes” kind of production that leaves you with answers to a question you probably weren’t asking: What would happen if a bear ate cocaine?

Full credits

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Brownstone Productions, Lord Miller
Cast: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Aaron Holliday, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Screenwriter: Jimmy Warden
Producers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Brian Duffield, Aditya Sood
Executive producers: Robin Mulcahy Fisichella, Alison Small, Nikki Baida
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Aaron Haye
Costume designer: Tiziana Corvisieri
Editor: Joel Negron
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting directors: Debra Zane, Dylan Jury

Rated R, 1 hour 32 minutes

Check the latest Hollywood news here.