Cocaine Bear Review
No false advertising here: Cocaine Bear makes the best of its premise and cast, pitting 15 good actors against a coked-up bear.
Cocaine Bear is one of those movies that is exactly what it promises, not only when it comes to living up to its silly title. The film tells a true-life story from the 1980s that, I gather, has been embellished to a considerable degree.
In the actual case, as in the movie, a small plane piloted by drug smugglers really did crash, dropping bags of cocaine into a recreation area in Georgia, and a black bear really did ingest a massive amount of the drug. In real life, however, the bear was found dead of an overdose, didn’t go on a rampage or kill anyone, and was ultimately taxidermied and nicknamed “Pablo Eskobear.” Waylon Jennings even owned it for a time.
The events of Cocaine Bear more resemble the Sankebetsu brown bear incident in Japan in 1915 — which caused seven deaths, despite no cocaine being involved — than the actual story of the Georgia bear from 1985.
As in real life, bags of drugs rain from the sky over the American South as a result of a drug smuggler’s parachute mishap (carried out by a cameo-ing Matthew Rhys.) Once the coke reaches the ground, it wreaks havoc on several different groups of people.
A pair of kids (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) who snuck to the state park; the girl’s mother (Keri Russell); a gun-toting park ranger and her crush (Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a cop who dotes on his dog (Isiah Whitlock. Jr.), and some henchmen of a drug kingpin (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich.) Euphoria‘s Aaron Holiday plays a robber, while Game of Thrones veteran Kristofer Hivju is on hand as a hiker.
That drug kingpin is the late Ray Liotta, and this is one of his final movies; Liotta finds yet another way to play a guy who’s upset that the large cache of cocaine that he’s counting on to sell has suddenly disappeared.
The highlights of the cast are Martindale — reunited with Russell and Rhys after she played their KGB handler on The Americans, as a park ranger unlike any you’ve ever seen; Jackson as a drug middleman who gets an intense bathroom fight scene (no, not against the bear); and Ehrenreich, starting to get roles against after the debacle of Solo: A Star Wars Story. He absolutely nails the part of a depressed, greaving drug henchman, and makes much more of an impression than in his Netflix-bound middling Sundance film Fair Play.
Director Elizabeth Banks mostly succeeds in juggling a talented cast and more importantly than that, some seriously clashing tones. The film is a comedy at times, a thriller at others, and an extremely gory horror film still at others. Most of it fits together, although a long third-act sequence inside a cave is shot in a particularly dark, cruddy, and mostly unwatchable way.
Still, the film is hilarious, and most of the comedy is based on cocaine humor, something primarily absent in the culture in recent years; gone are the days when Robin Williams could star in a stand-up special and do a 10-minute riff of only cocaine jokes. The bear is mostly CGI, and some of the greatest moments involve clouds of cocaine ending up in the bear’s nose.
Most importantly, Cocaine Bear is not Snakes on a Plane. It’s much better than that.
For some reason, there’s been a tremendous, sight-unseen backlash against the film, mostly by people expecting that it is like Snakes on a Plane– a high concept based on a ridiculous title, which inspired months of memes before the movie came along and was a crushing disappointment. “Stupid smirking Reddit shit,” one viral tweet called it, although that seems more of a shot at faceless people reacting to trailers than to the film itself.
Banks’ first film as director was the Charlie’s Angels reboot that almost no one saw. Luckily, she got another chance and has made something much better.