Major spoilers ahead for Cocaine Bear. You’ve been warned.
Ever since the trailer for Cocaine Bear first premiered, curiosity and anticipation for its release have only intensified. And when it was revealed that actor/director Elizabeth Banks would be at the helm, it grew even more. What would the flick be like? Would it be a comedy? A creature feature? Or both? And most importantly, would it be any good?
Well, the time has finally come to find out. Cocaine Bear has arrived, and she’s high as a friggin’ kite.
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What’s probably the craziest aspect of this flick is that it really is based on real life. Once upon a time, in 1985, a smuggler named Andrew Thornton II (cameo by Matthew Rhys) was flying a plane carrying around 880 pounds of cocaine. Thinking federal agents were following him in another aircraft, Thornton tossed the load out of the plane before jumping out himself. Unfortunately for him, his parachute didn’t open. His body was found on someone’s driveway in Knoxville, TN.
A few months later, a dead black bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. It had died after inhaling and ingesting a bunch of the cocaine Thornton had dropped. That’s where the “based on true events” part of the story stops, and Cocaine Bear begins.
Of course, our bear hasn’t died. She’s already on a coke-fueled rampage from the jump. Her first unfortunate victims are a couple of Euro-hikers named Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra). They think they’re getting the photo-op of a lifetime when the bear comes across them, but when she starts chasing them, not so much. Poor Elsa gets caught, and Olaf watches in horror as her dismembered leg comes flying out of the bushes at him.
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Next, there’s a single mom named Sari (Keri Russell) and her precocious daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Sari has a new boyfriend, and Dee Dee doesn’t like him, especially since Sari’s welching on a promised outing to Chattahoochee to “paint the waterfall.” So, Dee Dee decides to ditch school and go anyway, along with her buddy Henry (Christian Convery, whose performance is one of the highlights).
While the kids are hiking the trail and eating the lunches they should be eating at school; they come across one of the kilos of coke. Kids being kids, they dare each other to do some. Of course, not knowing how it’s supposed to be done, they each eat a knife blade full of the stuff. Gross. And then Cocaine Bear finds them, and all we see is them screaming before we cut away to the next bunch of folks getting involved.
And that would be the police: Detective Bob (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) and a fellow officer, Reba (Ayoola Smart). They’ve found the body of Andrew Thornton and the duffel bag of coke he was carrying. Bob knows a local dealer who’s involved, and he’s got to get to work. The only problem? He has a new puppy he’s carrying around in a box with him. A cute little Maltese named Rosette with a ribbon in her pretty white hair. He can’t take her with him, leaving her with a reluctant Reba.
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Cut to the local dealer, a mean-looking customer named Syd (Ray Liotta, in his last role), who seems really out of place in a Chuck E. Cheese-type joint, looking after his grandson, who’s jumping around in the ball pit. Syd’s errand boy, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), shows up, and Syd tells him to get busy finding the rest of the cocaine before the Colombians he’s mixed up with decide to take their fury out on him.
Cut to a darkened bar, where Daveed arrives to pick up his fellow errand boy (and Syd’s son), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s drowning his sorrows in alcohol and a plate of pasta. His wife Joanie has died, and he’s overwhelmed with grief (he has a brand new, misspelled tattoo to prove it). Daveed eventually manages to drag Eddie out of the bar, but he continues to weep in the truck as one of Joanie’s favorite power ballads plays.
At the ranger station in Chattahoochee, there’s a salty park ranger named Liz (Margo Martindale) who’s far more concerned about looking pretty for her favorite hippie conservationist, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), than taking care of the forest. And there are also a few 20-somethings loitering about, waiting to rob any hikers that come through – known only as Kid (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J.B. Moore) and Ponytail (Leo Hanna).
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Sari shows up simultaneously as Peter and Ranger Liz reluctantly agrees to help her find the kids. They find one of the kilos of coke and poor Henry, way up in a tree, who tells them the crazed bear took Dee Dee. Then the star of the show makes her appearance, going on her first full-on, bloody rampage. The bear attacks Ranger Liz, taking a chunk out of her butt (ouch) before she gimps away to “go get help.”
Peter scrambles up a tree even though, as he states himself, bears are fully capable of climbing trees. Especially when said bear is high on coke and smells more all over poor Peter. Buh-bye Peter. Sari and Henry manage to escape and go in search of Dee Dee.
Meanwhile, Daveed and Eddie get to the ranger station, only to get into an awesome bathroom fight when Kid, Vest and Ponytail try to jack them. Daveed gets stabbed in the shoulder but still manages to kick all their butts spectacularly. He and Eddie realize that the guys have found some of the coke, and Daveed threatens Kid with an even worse beating unless he shows them to the gazebo, where they stashed more of the coke.
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Soon after, an ambulance arrives at the ranger station, and the EMTs find a barely-conscious Ranger Liz, along with a now very-dead Vest and Ponytail. Liz tries to tell them the bear is still there, but EMT Tom (Scott Seiss) opens the closet door to find the bear munching on what’s left of Vest.
EMT Beth (Kahyun Kim) drags Liz out to the ambulance and onto a gurney and starts driving off. EMT Tom manages to jump in, but Cocaine Bear’s right on them, running after them with frightening speed. In a hilariously gorgeous shot, the bear jumps into the ambulance and kills EMT Tom, while Ranger Liz gets thrown out onto the road face first (seriously gross), and EMT Beth crashes the ambulance, getting thrown out the windshield. Rack up three more notches on Cocaine Bear’s belt.
Meanwhile, Daveed, Eddie and Kid (who’ve been bonding on the hike and have even shared a hug) arrive at the gazebo. Who should they find but Detective Bob, up on the gazebo’s roof where Kid stashed the duffel. There’s a standoff until Daveed goes for his gun, and Detective Bob shoots him in the hand, blowing off two of his fingers (that aren’t even next to each other, by the way). Then, Cocaine Bear shows up, and everyone stares in amazement as she gulps down yet another kilo and then collapses right on top of Eddie.
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Poor smushed Eddie tries to shimmy and slide his way out from under, but she’s too heavy. He’s stuck there until the bear smells more coke and wakes up. To keep them from being next on the menu, Detective Bob chucks another kilo into the woods to get the bear to leave.
But before anybody can do anything else, Detective Bob suddenly gets shot by Syd, who’s shown up to take care of business himself. While poor Bob dies on that gazebo roof, thinking about little Rosette, Syd forces everybody else to help him get the rest of the coke.
Meanwhile, Sari and Henry come across a traumatized Olaf, who helps them find the cave where Dee Dee’s trail of paint and clothes lead to. They find an injured Dee Dee and, it turns out, Cocaine Bear’s little ones. They follow the cubs out to the waterfall, and not long after, Syd and the gang show up too. And then Mama Cocaine Bear arrives. Sari and the kids jump off the ledge, followed by Eddie and Daveed.
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Syd shoots Mama Cocaine Bear, and it looks like she dies. But while Syd’s busy trying to get one of the duffels, some of the coke sprays out and revives Mama Cocaine Bear. She rears back up with renewed strength and takes care of Syd, opening up his guts so her little ones can have a snack. Yum.
Sari, the kids, Daveed and Eddie all return to the ranger station. Reba meets them there and gives little Rosette to Eddie, who’s vowed to be a new man and a good dad to his neglected kid. And Dee Dee’s only too happy to go home with Mom and give her a break about the new boyfriend.
Elsewhere in the forest, another hiker couple happily takes photos of cute bear cubs and their Mama until the Cocaine Bear family notices them. Uh-oh.
But wait! There’s more! How about a couple of mid-credits scenes? One is of Kid, who’s gotten away with one of the duffels. He hitches a ride with a sheep farmer and almost leaves the duffel in the back with the sheep until he thinks better of it and takes it up front with him.
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The other is of Eddie and Daveed – and Rosette. The cute little pup made a snack from Daveed’s non-consecutive, blown-off fingers. Daveed almost lets his infamous rage take over but realizes there’s no point. They wouldn’t have been able to reattach them anyway, he says, with a new sense of calm. Besides, as long as Rosette isn’t doing coke, she’s alright by him. Aww.
If that plot rundown seemed like the most random, all-over-the-place thing you ever read, there’s a good reason for that. Because Cocaine Bear is one of the most random, all-over-the-place flicks you’ll ever see. Usually, those descriptors would be negatives, but that’s the thing — the random, all-over-the-placeness is quite deliberate and all part of the fun.
Horror-comedy is probably one of the most challenging genres to pull off, and adding a creature feature aspect makes it doubly hard. To find the right balance between the scares/gore with the humor and creating a believable-looking (or at least, coolly cheesy-looking) monster takes incredible skill. When done successfully, you get classics like Lake Placid, Tremors, Piranha 3D (not to be confused with Piranha 3DD) or even Jaws, which still qualifies even though it sits on a much higher pedestal.
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Elizabeth Banks has shown herself to be a skilled director, especially with comedy. Now with Cocaine Bear, she ventures into horror territory and isn’t at all afraid to dive head-first into some serious gore, and I mean serious. When you see Ray Liotta get disemboweled and those adorable bear cubs chomping on his intestines, it’s like, dang. So, Banks and the flick earn a lot of points for audaciousness alone.
As for the comedy, it’s non-stop. Even though not every joke or visual gag lands, many do. Especially when you have lines like, “The bear’s vagina is right by my ear,” or cute little Henry yelling, “That bear is f**ked!” or Alden Ehrenreich’s sad-sack Eddie bawling his eyes out listening to Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love,” I mean, come on. You’ll laugh pretty friggin’ hard when you’re not completely grossed out. Incorporating all the ’80s references, especially the famous anti-drug ads, adds another level of sharply and darkly humorous satire.
While I would say Cocaine Bear isn’t entirely successful and would have benefitted story-wise from a less random plotline and fewer characters, all of that seems irrelevant. Because Cocaine Bear is only meant to be fun — hardcore, hilarious, supremely gory fun — and that it pulls off quite awesomely. Like, totally, fer sure.
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks
Written by: Jimmy Warden
Release Date: February 24, 2023
Run Time: 1 hr 35 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures
This article was originally published on 3/3/23.
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