Cocaine Bear Review: Pure Concept Gets Diluted
For a movie blanketed with white puffs of powder, Cocaine Bear is strangely sedate.
In an age of big C-suite visions of streaming power and total global market domination, Universal Pictures has spent the first two months of 2023 seemingly shrugging their shoulders and saying “so what?” Rather than betting on the next phase (excuse me, “chapter”) of another shared universe, or sending films straight to Peacock, the studio has unleashed a trio of cheeky (and now sleazy) theatrical throwbacks: M3GAN, Knock at the Cabin, and this weekend’s human-chomping Cocaine Bear.
The first two defied conventional wisdom with their respective camp and solemnity, proving that even B-movies released wide at the beginning of the year don’t have to suck. There was actual wit at play in the sight of a killer doll doing a pseudo-pirouette, or Dave Bautista channeling his inner-street corner evangelist. More impressive still, those movies made money. Audiences showed up for ideas that were original and had the good spirit to find treasure in what could’ve been another pitch meeting’s trash.
I wish Cocaine Bear completed the hat trick.
To be sure, this gonzo-gory horror-comedy mashup has already taken social media by storm because it has a honey of an idea dipped in Colombian Bam Bam: Let’s make a movie about a bear on cocaine! It’s a great joke that director Elizabeth Banks blessedly doesn’t take seriously for a single moment, even if the concept is loosely based on a true story about an apex predator who got addicted to happy powder. Alas, she doesn’t quite stretch the joke out to 90 minutes. In fact, it barely covers the 30 or so that Cokie the Bear is onscreen. And the 60 where she isn’t? Let’s just say your attention span’s withdrawal will start getting the night sweats real quick.
As aforementioned, Cocaine Bear is loosely based on the true story of Andrew C. Thornton II and his doomed last flight. That probably allows more romance to Thornton’s final descent than a drug runner who bailed out of a crashing plane and was too high to open his parachute deserves. Yet that is how at least 70 pounds of pure Florida Snow ended up in the Georgian mountains of the Chattahoochee River and then, subsequently, in the belly of a 175-pound black bear. Thornton’s last moments are Cocaine Bear’s first, but everything afterward in the movie is an invention by screenwriter Jimmy Warden, who uses the potent setup to stage an incredibly graphic, and scatteringly amusing, killing spree.
With a premise like that, you might think the victims don’t matter, and you should be right. But when about two-thirds of this grisly spectacle is populated by meat sacks who suck the oxygen out of almost every scene, even before the bear starts tearing them apart, it becomes a fatal problem. The prime culprit is likely Warden’s shockingly lazy script, which treats the human scenes as interchangeable chunks of filler that pad a running time yet relentlessly diminish the fun of the murder set pieces. Even when making schlock, that’s a mistake.
A movie like Cocaine Bear should have an energy that’s propulsive. Zippy, even. The picture should move like a black bear consumed with a Wall Street bro’s favorite accessory. But this movie isn’t frantic or frazzled; instead its pacing sags like the couch of a dispensary’s favorite indica customer.
This deficiency is all the more uncanny when Ray Liotta appears for one of his final performances as Syd, a particularly scuzzy drug dealer who Thornton apparently was working for. Liotta of course played one of cinema’s greatest coke heads in Goodfellas, who’s last day of freedom is a symphony of paranoia and kinetic madness. This is not to say Cocaine Bear needs to be a Scorsese picture, but seeing the late, great actor causes the mind to wander in this direction as there is little else to think of as Syd and the other mechanical automatons interact. This includes Syd’s estranged adult son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Eddie’s childhood friend turned small-time drug dealer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), or all the fresh meat victims they meet along the way, such as Sari (Keri Russell), a single mother looking for her daughter lost in the national park, and Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), the unhelpful park official who leads mom into the jaws of danger.
All these scenes lack the fizzy energy the film thinks it’s creating, as indicated by pauses in the edit to allow room for laughter. Yet rarely did the non-bear antics gain so much as a chuckle in my audience, save the bemusing energy of Henry (Christian Convery) and Dee De (Brooklynn Prince), two wide-eyed kids who discover a mountain of coke and then a bear in a sequence that plays like every 1980s anti-drugs PSA if it was… um, on crack?
By and large, the movie’s a waiting game for the bear to attack. And fair enough. It might not be the sign of a good movie, but it still could be solid schlock. Who watches Evil Dead for the romance scenes? Yet even many of the bear’s attacks lack bite. There’s teeth, claws, guts, and even a missing finger or two, but all that gore is strangely bloodless. The trick about the truly good schlock that you remember is there’s visceral joy in the viscera—a playfulness that invites audiences to indulge in bad taste. It’s a chance to show off your craft while making what otherwise would be crap.
But most of the violence in Cocaine Bear is filmed with a perfunctory ugliness. It’s brutal, but it comes off with an air of desperation, like a salesman following you down the street insisting their product is pure. Among the two exceptions are a fantastic chase sequence where EMTs test if an ambulance can outrun a bear, and another that’s in all the trailers where two folks climb a tree and audiences have to guess who’s the unlucky one. On the whole, though, the effect is more exhausting than thrilling.
Still, if you want to sample it for yourself, I won’t stop you. It’s lovely that something so tasteless can still find a place in this theatrical (and social media) climate. One can even imagine it actually improving when being cut with other ingredients, like midnight showings where audiences can shout back at the screen. In its current diluted form, however, all I can warn is that it’s going to be a bad trip.
Cocaine Bear is in theaters now.