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Cocaine Bear (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 28, 2023


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, Aaron Holliday, Matthew Rhys, Scott Seiss, Kahyun Kim, Ayoola Smart, Chloe Harris, Shane Connellan, Conor Lambert and J.B. Moore.

Screenplay by Jimmy Warden.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 95 minutes. Rated R.

Cocaine Bear. The title alone is so crazy and cheesy that you would be excused for thinking this film is going to be a total car wreck before even entering the theater. Also the fact that it is loosely (very loosely!) based on the true story of a black bear which stumbled upon a stash of coke which was tossed from a crashing plane by a bumbling drug runner in the mid-80s.

Add to that the fact that the corpse of the “cocaine bear” somehow ended up being a tourist attraction in a Kentucky mall, and most audiences may be excused for wanting to high tail it out of the woods to avoid Cocaine Bear.

It seems like an odd subject for comic actress Elizabeth Banks to choose for her third film as a director – then again her first two choices were kind of offbeat, too, Pitch Perfect 2 (which she also was one of the co-stars of) and the 2019 failed reboot of Charlie’s Angels.

It turns out – who’d’ve thunk? – that perhaps Banks was the ideal choice to helm the surprisingly wacky adventures of the cocaine bear and the unlucky humans who stray into her path, because Cocaine Bear is much funnier than it had any right to be.

Fair warning, it’s also very graphically violent – Banks and her cast lean into the imagined situation and turn the mayhem up to 11. (The real cocaine bear did not kill multiple people like her cinematic counterpart, she just died of an overdose.)

It is actually very tricky tonally to mix horror and humor, although Hollywood keeps (mostly unsuccessfully) trying. However, Cocaine Bear mostly hits the sweet spot, the violence is so cartoonish and the humor often so unexpectedly off-the-wall that Cocaine Bear, while far from a great film, is surprisingly engaging.

When I was a little kid, the movie that scared me more than any other I ever saw was a Jaws rip-off called Grizzly about a killer bear running wild in a national park. I have no doubt that film was not nearly as scary as little me remembers it (I have not seen it since the theatrical release in 1976), but oddly Cocaine Bear is sort of like Grizzly with drugs and jokes. And rather than triggering me, Cocaine Bear makes me oddly nostalgic for the older film.

And nostalgia is a huge part of Cocaine Bear’s allure, from a soundtrack made up of pop hits of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to some wonderfully specific ‘80s references. Beyond the film’s similarity to Grizzly, it also feels like it was mashed up with a cult favorite comedy about camping in the 1980s called Wet Hot American Summer. (Which, maybe not coincidentally, featured one of Elizabeth Banks’ earliest major roles as an actor.)

Cocaine Bear has a surprisingly smart and game cast going over-the-top (in a good way) including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and one of Ray Liotta’s final performances.

While personally I found the comedy more interesting than the bloody parts, the whole film went down surprisingly easily, and I laughed a whole lot more than I would have ever imagined from the title.

The biggest surprise of all is that you don’t have to “just say no” to Cocaine Bear.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: February 24, 2023.

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