Based on the true story of an American black bear that ingested up to 34 kilos of cocaine in the Chattahoochee National Forest of North Georgia in 1985, Cocaine Bear dares to ask: what if that bear didn’t actually die but instead went on a coke-fueled rampage? DEA agent turned smuggler Andrew Carter Thornton II, nicknamed “The Cocaine Cowboy,” would drop duffel bags filled with precious Colombian flake over the Southeastern United States from a small plane to then retrieve later on foot. Thornton would usually crash his planes and parachute to safety, however, when finishing a run bound for Knoxville, Tennessee, his parachute inexplicably failed and led him to a quick death. The unlucky bear who found one of his bags of cocaine arguably suffered a worse death, experiencing heart failure, cerebral hemorrhaging, and more when overdosing. Though that doesn’t make for a very entertaining movie, right?
Andrew Thornton was a larger-than-life character worthy enough of his own exaggerated Hollywood retelling, but Universal and director Elizabeth Banks set their sights on the furry beast who went on the trip of no return with the hopes of making a new iconic movie monster. With a premise this batshit insane, you would have to work extra hard to not make Cocaine Bear an enjoyable watch at the very least. The dark comedy, written by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), has grown a viral following ever since audiences got their first look at the titular bear in all its white powder-sniffing glory. This kind of popularity is not surprising given the involvement of producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as Elizabeth Banks and Brownstone Productions – the company she founded with her husband Max Handelman that is responsible for the Pitch Perfect series.
If you’ve participated in this viral trend and are going into Cocaine Bear with the pure hopes of seeing a 500-pound apex predator snort lines and maul helpless victims to death, then you’re in luck because you get just enough of that. However, when the chaos settles and all the booger sugar loses its effect, you can’t help but feel like there’s some wasted potential here. Cocaine Bear is essentially stuck between the tone of a campy B-movie and a modern well-rounded comedy. This isn’t really a bad thing; heck, M3GAN recently found success by striking a balance between campiness and crowd-pleasing horror. In taking a similar approach, director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden try to appeal to everyone who could be watching. Yet, a concept as absurd as Cocaine Bear deserves more campiness, and this safer approach leaves some mixed results.
After we open on a mostly accurate depiction of Thornton’s final coke run and ultimate demise, Cocaine Bear deviates into complete fiction. The plot follows an ensemble of unrelated colorful characters as their fates intertwine through the actions of one unlikely bear. We have Sari (Keri Russell), a single mother and nurse who’s desperately looking for her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and the young Henry (Christian Convery) after the two kids go missing in the woods around “Blood Mountain” while ditching school. Then we have Syd (Ray Liotta), the drug kingpin who sends his estranged son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and the loyal Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) into the Georgia forest to search for the missing cocaine. Finally, we have detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who’s hot on the trail of our criminals and park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) doing her best to keep peace and take the bear down.
Additional faces like Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, comedian Scott Seiss, and Game of Thrones star Kristofer Hivju pop in for some fun. Altogether, though, the intertwining plot lines vary in levels of humor. This goes back to how Cocaine Bear often holds back its ridiculousness, mainly in the first half. By the time all the characters have crossed paths with each other and our black bear’s blow addiction, the film is allowed to soar. The camaraderie between Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. is especially hilarious, and their interaction with the always great Isiah Whitlock Jr. absolutely makes for the most memorable scene that doesn’t include the bear itself. Meanwhile, Ray Liotta’s first posthumous performance reminds us that the legend never lost his comedic chops. The cast definitely does most of the heavy lifting, but let’s be real, you’re here to see a cracked-out killer bear.
Elizabeth Banks does a swell job of giving our main creature a personality of its own. Rather than just being a mindless animal, you get a sense that this bear is a bit lost and confused, perhaps finding a new purpose in life after discovering cocaine. It’s silly, sure, but when unknowing tourists and teens get in the way of it getting even higher on blow, it feels almost personal. The bear also sports some battle scars, which gives it an inspired visual design. In spite of all this, it’s a shame that the bear remains completely CGI throughout the entire film. There are instances where you can easily imagine the bear as a practical effect instead, whether it be someone in a suit or some kind of puppet. Even if it did end up looking goofy or unbelievable, the B-movie tone would have surely worked in its favor.
This once again brings us to the biggest setback of Cocaine Bear. As the old saying goes, if you’re going to commit to something, go all-in. There are fleeting moments when Cocaine Bear truly goes balls to the wall with its premise, the best example being an extreme ambulance chase sequence set to Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. The film doesn’t always sustain this much-needed high energy, no less thanks to its lack of dedication to more far-out humor and favoring unpolished CGI gore over practical effects. The makings of what could be a cult classic are here that’s for sure. From the various energetic performances to cinematographer John Guleserian’s amusing visuals to Mark Mothersbaugh’s lively synth-based score, there’s enough in Cocaine Bear to keep you engaged and satisfied, if just barely. The real question comes with how it will hold up over time.
Coming after Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019′ Charlie’s Angels, this is Elizabeth Banks’ most versatile film yet as a director. Still, for a movie that hilariously cites Wikipedia with its opening quote on bear safety, you would think that everything that comes next would be just as loose and unashamed. Cocaine Bear will certainly be embraced with open arms by many since it’s not every day a major studio invests in a wild story like this. Yet, the film never reaches its full potential in trying to appease as many people as possible. It’s simply not as distinct as you would hope. What you see is what you get here. And if you’re looking to distract yourself for an hour and a half with a good old-fashioned, coke-fueled bloodbath sprinkled with ’80s bops, then Cocaine Bear still gets the job done this way despite its looming flaws.