Cocaine Bear (2023) Movie Review

Cocaine Bear is the type of movie that “works well in the room,” so to speak. The pitch to Universal on this probably went over like gangbusters. It’s a fun premise with an undeniably eye-catching title, and a film that could be marketed to a college crowd during a slow box office weekend. It is a movie about a bear that does cocaine and wreaks havoc on a forest full of people. That’s not the most difficult movie to find an audience for. And judging solely on one theater in a small market during the film’s Thursday night preview screening, it looks like it did in fact reach that audience.

I saw two movies on this Thursday. One was Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in its second weekend; the other was Cocaine Bear. Ant-Man, a huge release with a massive budget that is part of one of the most profitable franchises of all time, was attended by me and two others. Cocaine Bear, meanwhile, was a nearly packed house in one of the theater’s smaller auditoriums. To be fair to poor Ant-Man (not the best movie of the year, but I won’t pile on to the already resoundingly middling reception), it was an earlier showing than Cocaine Bear.

But still, Marvel and the movie about a bear doing cocaine should be competing in different divisions. Cocaine Bear might not eat Ant-Man‘s lunch at the box office this weekend (too busy eating an ungodly volume of cocaine), but it is probably going to do well for itself.

There are two reasons for this. One is what I already mentioned: the film is marketable and it is likely to find its target audience. Second, it is cheap for a movie being released in over 3,500 theaters. The lion’s share of the production budget went to CGI-rendering the titular cocaine bear (yes, it is referred to as “the cocaine bear” in the film). And while this CGI is touch and go, it is largely impressive considering most of the film takes place during the day (and low budget CGI still struggles to look good when fully lit).

Early in the film, the way the bear is shot had me worried. The first scene shows it full-on, but the first real set piece featuring it goes a long time without showing the animal at all. I feared that the movie would be a lot of a bear hiding in bushes and pulling people off-screen. There is some of this, but once we get to the meat of the movie (emphasis on “meat”), it gets very gnarly and very bear-y.

Surrounding this gnarly series of set pieces is a loosely drawn plot. An overworked nurse (Keri Russell) realizes that her latchkey kid daughter Dee (Brooklynn Prince) is missing. She knows where to find the girl, who has been talking about painting the waterfalls on Blood Mountain. The peak, and the forests surrounding it, have also been subject to a coke-addled drug dealer pitching duffel bags full of cocaine bricks out of a small plane (before slipping and falling to his death). Two low-level drug dealers (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich) are tasked with recovering the lost duffels from the forest for their boss Syd (Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen roles).

Meanwhile, a grizzled cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is on the hunt for Syd. The forest ranger (Margo Martindale) is trying to get laid. And three ne’er-do-well teenagers (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna) are looking to rip-off people on the trails at knife point. The whole thing is a loose amalgamation of subplots with the sole purpose of justifying why an ensemble of quirky characters would get in the path of an aggressive, coked-up bear.

The film is thrusting its tongue so firmly into its cheek that the cheek might be bleeding. The central joke sounds like something which would get old fairly quickly. It does, but the script has its moments and director Elizabeth Banks uses the camera for one or two witty visual bits. Whatever mileage the comedy might have, enjoyment of the film thoroughly relies on one’s ability to ride its tonal wavelength, which plays at one frequency the entire time. It’s all very campy, and it relishes in the violence of the scenarios, and every character exists to present a single comedic personality trait.

On the whole, I think I rode that wave just fine. I was prepared for the experience that I received. Nonetheless, Cocaine Bear is something of a slog. At 95 minutes, the pacing is surprisingly lumpy. The couple of set pieces that hit really do hit, but the rest of the film plods along until the next big bear attack. The film also happens to be front-loaded with the superior of these attack sequences. Following a lengthy sequence that begins in the ranger’s station and ends with a vehicle barreling down the road (the film’s centerpiece and arguably its highest point), nothing else is particularly exciting or visually spectacular. Given that there is an entire act after that sequence, this poses a problem.

For what its worth, there are shots in here that look fantastic and the visual effects are sufficient for what the film needs of them. As far as bears and cocaine go, though, that combination alone is not enough to hang your would-be cult film on. Especially if you are in on the joke and it’s the only cohesive joke you have.

Cocaine Bear: C+

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)


Leave a Reply. We'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.