There are some movies whose potential appeal may not be immediately apparent from their title. Then there is Cocaine Bear.
Coming to us from the increasingly gonzo minds at Universal (seriously, did Cats break them somehow?), Cocaine Bear is, believe it or not, based on the true story of a 1985 incident wherein a North American black bear from the Georgia wilderness ate a significant amount of a 75kg cocaine drop that was never properly recovered by authorities. In real life, the bear died long before the effects of the drug could enter its bloodstream, and it has since been taxidermied and put on display in a Lexington, Kentucky mall. That’s not even a joke. You could travel to Lexington, Kentucky right now, and see this unfortunate creature for yourself, immortalized for all time. It even officiates weddings! Again, not a joke! Kentucky marriage law is pretty wild!
As weird and vaguely sad as the story of the real-life Cocaine Bear is however, it did not cause any fatalities, nor any harm to humans in general. This makes it safe to assume that Universal’s ‘adaptation’ of these real-life events, the aptly-titled horror-comedy movie, Cocaine Bear, is taking more than a few creative liberties with the legacy of this ill-fated animal. Chiefly, in Universal’s take on the story, the Cocaine Bear became so immediately super-charged on cocaine that it developed a taste for human meat, and subsequently went on a rampage in a Georgia forest community. Some folks might be inclined to ask how a North American black bear becomes simultaneously bloodthirsty, super high and immediately addicted from eating cocaine, which has a very different series of effects than snorting cocaine, as intended, but those people would probably be better served with a more highbrow movie choice than Cocaine Bear.
And yet, for all of the innate, silly fun one could have with a group of buddies watching this bizarre live-action cartoon in motion (perhaps with a few recreational drugs of your own on standby for best results), Cocaine Bear feels like a spectacular missed opportunity for the increasingly eclectic directing catalogue of Elizabeth Banks. Yes, that Elizabeth Ba-, okay, we’ve played this game before. Anyway, Banks’ direction is more unpredictable and all-over-the-map than this movie’s eponymous subject, leading to a horror-comedy romp that has moments of cheeky, bloody fun, but too often feels strangely confused about what it wants to be. That’s before considering that, for a movie called Cocaine Bear, it really could have used a lot more of, you know, the promised cocaine bear!
As mystifying as it is that Cocaine Bear spends so much of its scant 95-minute runtime without the actual titular bear on screen, the scenes that do feature the bear are of course a nice, silly highlight. The bear itself is fully CG, unsurprisingly, both because this is a pretty proud B-movie that isn’t trying to be high art, and because the animal has to rip the same handful of limbs off of passersby in order to score more of that sweet, displaced booger sugar. Regardless, the actual Cocaine Bear feels like it practically wandered off of the set of an R-rated Yogi Bear reboot, being as lovably exaggerated as the premise of this movie in general, particularly when it actually makes the decision to not murder whoever it sees.
“For a movie called Cocaine Bear, it really could have used a lot more of, you know, the promised Cocaine Bear!”
The idea seems to be that its accidental drug bender has made the bear as unpredictable as it is bloodthirsty, an idea that can sometimes lend itself to some decent physical comedy. The downside to this however is that it leaves Cocaine Bear painfully unsure of whether to treat the eponymous animal like a furry slasher villain, or an adorable victim that’s getting well-deserved revenge on those naughty humans. The result will frequently leave viewers confused about whether they’re supposed to root for or against the bear. Even the human characters seem to be a little confused about this, in fact, namely during several scenes where they’re holding guns and have very clear kill shots ready, but don’t actually kill the Cocaine Bear, because then the movie would be over.
This clumsiness in execution is most often felt around the characterization of the Cocaine Bear itself, further exacerbating the fact that the bear is featured strangely little throughout this movie’s runtime. The scenes where it does appear do tend to hit more than they miss, but Cocaine Bear really needed to nail down whether the human-murdering scavenger is a monster that needs to be put down before it kills again, or a sitcom plot device that simply needs to be calmed and/or survived. Through trying to have its blow and eat it too, Cocaine Bear often degrades into a feature-length SNL sketch with a wide range in potential brutality and potential laughs, and that’s actually less fun than it sounds in the final product.
Another surprising creative choice that sometimes makes Cocaine Bear confusing for the wrong reasons is its surprisingly heavy emphasis on the affairs of the human cast. Even before the titular bear’s rampage kicks up in earnest, Cocaine Bear seems to spend many minutes establishing a surprisingly robust lead cast of human personalities. This includes: Keri Russell as a single mother whose young daughter is kidnapped by the bear (yes, seriously), Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a detective trying to chase the drug smugglers whose organization is responsible for the botched cocaine drop, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich as said drug smugglers, Margo Martindale as a forest ranger trying to covertly romance a wildlife expert played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles before his death, as the drug boss attempting to rectify the disaster of the lost cocaine.
Immediately, this is a lot of human characters to hit audiences with in a movie where a black bear goes on a drug-fueled rampage. There is a lot of time spent on fleshing out the lead cast as well, to the point where there’s almost an unnecessary level of detail throughout their backstories. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, for example have managed to make this work through a combination of razor-sharp writing and highly charismatic lead performances, but with Cocaine Bear’s uneven acting and often confused direction, these character moments too often come off as time-wasting. Does it really provide anything for the movie when we’re constantly subjected to hearing about Margo Martindale’s dry spell, or Alden Ehrenreich’s dead wife, or Keri Russell wanting to hook up with some pediatrician that we never see?
I can respect the effort to try and make the characters look, sound and act like actual human beings, but that doesn’t work when Cocaine Bear nonetheless wants to treat many of them like redshirts. It just keeps hurting an already strained tone, one that would have been best served by just fully committing to being either a tongue-in-cheek slasher flick, or a surrealist comedy about the perversion of nature. Instead, Cocaine Bear is saddled with a bloated human cast whose inconsistent, overdone writing will simply have audiences looking at their phones until the titular bear shows up again, and hopefully eats one of these nobodies as a consequence for their unprovoked time-wasting.
As I mentioned, one of the most frequent problems with Cocaine Bear seems to be Elizabeth Banks’ direction. Banks seemingly meanders between wanting to make a quirky character comedy with a vicious, man-eating bear in it, and a manic, violent horror comedy that throws any semblance of realism out the window. It’s great that Banks seems so eager to creatively stretch as a director, but she doesn’t ultimately nail down a consistent final cut with Cocaine Bear. This is especially evident during some scenes where actors’ performances feel tired, disengaged and forced, and that’s the last thing that anyone should be conveying in a movie like this. If you’re making a movie called Cocaine Bear, and the actors are this wooden in some key scenes, something has gone very wrong behind the camera!
“Banks seemingly meanders between wanting to make a quirky character comedy with a vicious, man-eating bear in it, and a manic, violent horror comedy that throws any semblance of realism out the window.”
In defense of Banks however, Cocaine Bear’s scattershot script also isn’t doing her any favours. This script needed at least one rewrite to refine both its jokes and its horror elements, and make them better blend together into a more cohesive final product. The fact that this movie, like the real-life event that inspired it, takes place in the 80’s at least helps Cocaine Bear get around thorny horror obstacles like smartphones and the internet, but outside of that, its surprisingly unremarkable kills and weirdly restrained gore (outside of a couple of choice scenes), leave Cocaine Bear lacking for horror fans. Cocaine Bear does at least manage to thrive a little more as a dark comedy, especially when it actually lets the eponymous bear be an unrestrained menace that’s kind of weirdly cute sometimes. Still, even the laughs aren’t as consistent as they should be, especially in scenes that both go on too long, and feature far too much unnecessary exposition.
Cocaine Bear is a frustratingly uneven mess that gave away several of its best scenes in the trailers, and that’s a huge disappointment. It’s a decent enough rental for people that want something silly and disposable to watch with some friends, but even the eccentric hook of this movie being inspired by real-life events doesn’t ultimately do much for its lasting appeal.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say Cocaine Bear is truly incompetent as a horror-comedy, but it deserved to make so much more of an impression in terms of both laughs and gore. The titular bear really can be fun, but if the idea was to root for the bear, then why are we constantly being bogged down by superfluous examinations of the human characters’ lives? This should have been a new staple for gonzo stoner comedies, but in the end, Cocaine Bear is far more forgettable than it really should be, considering its bonkers, true life-inspired premise.
At least I can respect director, Elizabeth Banks really wanting to helm something different with Cocaine Bear, even if she ultimately missed the mark. Hell, even Universal isn’t wasting any time preparing more movies about animals behaving badly, considering this Summer’s tentpole dog-themed comedy, Strays is on the way. On that note, if a bunch of runaway dogs accomplish more on drugs than a black bear, I fear that Cocaine Bear’s missed opportunities will only hurt more in the near future.