Review: Cocaine Bear (2023)
Sari: Keri Russell
Eddie: Alden Ehrenreich
Daveed: O'Shea Jackson
Syd: Ray Liotta
Bob: Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Dee Dee: Brooklynn Prince
Henry: Christian Convery
Ranger Liz: Margo Martindale
Written by Jimmy Warden
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout
I am a simple man with simple needs and it could be argued that I am easily entertained. If you give me a movie about a coked out bear rampaging through a national forest while drug smugglers try to get their drugs back, I'm in. No arm twisting required. There are certain movies I believe were made just for me. Cocaine Bear is just such a film.
What do you need to know going in? Nothing, really. A drug lord attempts to unload a massive shipment over the Smoky Mountains for a pickup but dies when he falls out of his plane during the parachute jump. The drugs land, a mama black bear ingests it and gets addicted. What happens next is something best left for you to discover. Individual mileage may vary, of course. This may be your thing or it may not. What Elizabeth Banks has made is the fever-dream love child of the sensibilities of Tarantino, Sam Raimi, and the Coen Brothers. That isn't an original take on this movie. I read it in a scathing review, but I think it is a grand compliment.
Cocaine Bear is set in 1985, a nice choice because it provides not only allusions to Reagan-era "Just Say No" propaganda, but also a Spielbergian touch to the gore and mayhem. Keri Russell ("The Americans," "Felicity") is a single mom whose 13-year old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Dee Dee is upset that her mom is dating the pediatrician she works with and wants to get away from it all by hiking to a waterfall in the mountains. She and Henry discover the cocaine and then the bear. Sari partners up with a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and a park inspector (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to trek after the kids. Along the way, the smugglers show up looking for their product. Add in an intrepid detective and a trio of wannabe teen troublemakers and all the pieces are in place. I liked Henry a lot. He was a funny kid who delivers probably the best line in the whole picture after watching someone meet with a particularly nasty end.
Not every subplot works. Some of the rare moments of sentimentality don't quite land and I'm not sure a running bit about the detective and the dog he has adopted had a point, but these are minor qualms. Cocaine Bear knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be and delivers in spades. We get Ray Liotta's final film performance riffing on his GoodFellas character and he is clearly having a ball. We get Margo Martindale shooting at anything and everything she thinks is a bear and giving Samuel L. Jackson a run for his money in the constant delivery of the phrase "m*****f*****." We get Alden Ehrenreich as Ray Liott's son partnered with O'Shea Jackson as best friends in the smuggling trade. They have a funny scene played over Jeffrey Osborne's ballad "On the Wings of Love."
And we get a coke-addicted mama bear murdering people, the whole reason one sees a movie like this. There are three very impressive action set pieces, the best of which involves an ambulance. Yes, the movie has snark and absurdity but there are moments of genuine tension and horror. The bear effects are a joy, too. Considering this is a riff on a cheesy B-movie, they are surprisingly effective. Watching the bear look for its next bump is a source of great joy and fright.
So, yeah, I highly recommend Cocaine Bear, but here's the thing. You need to see it in a theater. This is a motion picture meant for the communal experience only the cinema can provide. My wife and I saw it at 10:00 on a Sunday morning with about 20 other people. Big laughs, squeals of delight, and screams of tension could be heard throughout. Maybe this movie isn't for you. I dunno. But, for me, Cocaine Bear is why I love going to the movies.