Just Bearable

The 1980s called and it wants its ‘Cocaine Bear’ back

Finally, a piece of trash that can bring us all together. We’re so steeped in mega-franchises and deeply plotted IPs with byzantine character interconnections that studios have almost lost the art of the lowbrow high-concept pitch. Thank the ursine Gods that Cocaine Bear is tangible proof of such brilliant stupidity, and it’s all coked up and ready to roar. That viciously vivid title alone is pure gold—it’s a raise-to-the-rafters MVP bullseye that belongs alongside Hot Tub Time Machine and Snakes on a Plane. Smokey the Bear, make way for Cokey the Bear.

COCAINE BEAR ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Written by: Jimmy Warden
Starring: Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra, Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Running time: 95 min

The best part of the Cocaine Bear experience is just thinking about it, saying it out loud, making plans to see it, telling people you saw it, and working the film’s title into literally any group chat or social media post. Be warned: there’s a better-than-even chance that whatever movie you’re picturing in your head is going to be more outrageous, more exciting, and more memorable than the real thing. Because the biggest shocker about such a gleefully gross, hysterically violent movie is that Cocaine Bear is actually pretty toothless.

Does anyone’s honest opinion about Cocaine Bear even matter? Why ruin a good thing? Just turn off your brain and go with it. Set in the summer of 1985, the flashy-tacky heart of everyone’s favorite Day-Glo decade, Cocaine Bear is both tribute to and satire of those post-grindhouse straight-to-video glory days. Back then, a casual stroll down the Blockbuster aisle nearly guaranteed what-the-hell impulse rentals, and prestige product like Out of Africa would share shelf space with Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

Elizabeth Banks, a stalwart booster of looney-tunes moviegoing with her on-screen antics in Hunger Games and off-screen masterminding of the Pitch Perfect franchise, here directs and co-produces alongside giddy absurdists like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. They know people aren’t here to see a believable recreation of the based-on-true-events story about a 175-lb black bear that died after ingesting some narcotics. People would much rather watch a 500-lb bear munch hard no-crumbs-left on brick after brick of Colombian Marching Powder and then go absolutely medieval on victim after victim in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest.  Not for nothing does most of the action take place on Blood Mountain.

Banks’ bonkers adventure leans hard into its R-rating and tonally wobbles from silly comic riffs to horror-movie jump scares and slasher-level gore. This is a film that delights in watching tweeners eat mouthfuls of blow off a Swiss Army knife blade and gives a pinned-down man a mouthful of apex predator vagina. It’s a flick with double-entendre groaners like “You got a dusty beaver here” and sight gags like having Cokey snort a line off a severed leg.

Did I mention that Cocaine Bear actually has actors in it? Keri Russell plays a worried mom, O’Shea Jackson Jr and Alden Ehrenreich are put-upon drug goons from Missouri, Ray Liotta is their cranky kingpin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson pops up as a pot-bellied wildlife expert with a blown-out hairdo and a ’70s ’stache, Margo Martindale gives ample side-eye as a horny-but-fussy park ranger, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. lumbers in as the baffled Tennessee detective who crosses state lines to give his WTF take on the booger-sugar smuggling-gone-sideways. Representing the child-in-peril subplot are Brooklynn Price and Christian Convery, winningly wide-eyed and predictably profane.

But they’re all just potential lambs to the slaughter for that titular monster, an entirely CGI-generated threat and, let’s face it, the real victim here for having the misfortune of being alive during the Just Say No era of drug hysteria and notoriously mythologized Cessna drug-running. Cocaine Bear shines during a few scenes of mayhem, best among them an extended action sequence involving two EMTs, a wounded soul strapped to a gurney, and a berserker mauling of epic proportions. But the film inevitably stumbles when it has to resolve a story that was more pitch-meeting premise than fully-formed fable. It’s a drug-fueled good time, but the euphoria fades pretty quickly. Expect a quick high that will probably leave you dazed and confused.

“The bear’s vagina is on my ear,” a typically highbrow moment from Cocaine Bear.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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