With such a self-explanatory title, this film didn’t have to do much else to get butts in seats. And yet, director Elizabeth Banks and her stellar cast raise the movie above a mere joke and turns it into a genuine crowd-pleaser where a bear does a line of cocaine off of a severed leg.
In other words, Cocaine Bear rules.
From the first scene of Matthew Rhys dancing in a plane while throwing duffel bags out into the void, I knew I was in for a fun time. And that’s what this was – pure fun. This ensemble cast shines, and each actor genuinely knows what they’re in for. After giving us a taste of what we came for (namely, “cocaine + bear = violence”), we’re introduced to our players.
There’s single mom Sari (Keri Russell), a nurse looking for love again, whose daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) goes into Chattahoochee National Forest as an act of pre-teen rebellion. There’s Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) desperately trying to court Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) while dealing with a gang of teenagers being mischievous. There’s detective and new-dog-owner Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who is after the rest of the dumped contraband.
And then, there are the drug dealers who are looking to recoup their losses. The film’s most memorable performance belongs to Alden Ehrenreich, whose character Eddie is reeling from his wife’s death to comedic effect. He’s a mess and sells it hard, expressing his sadness while diving into plain pasta at a bar and pointing out his misspelled tattoo. Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays fellow drug dealer Daveed, are a standout comedic pair, with Jackson’s no-nonsense attitude clashing with Ehrenreich’s “annoying little kid” vibe. The two bicker throughout the movie, even when Ehrenreich is crushed underneath the bear, who decides to take a nap directly on top of him.
Rounding out this stellar cast is Ray Liotta, who gives his last on-screen performance as Ehrenreich’s drug-lord father. For what could easily be a bit part shrugged off by a legacy actor, Liotta gives his disgruntled all and rocks some sweet orange-tinted sunglasses in the process. He balances his reputation for playing dangerous characters with a willingness to provide a fitting — if all-too-soon — a bookend to his career.
I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the film’s structure. The trailer made it seem like the story would play out much more linear and predictable. Instead of showing the titular bear do the titular drug and seeing things escalate from there, we’re dropped into a scene of two European hikers who face the bear. Each group gradually makes its way into the woods, and hijinks ensue once they meet each other and the bear, upping the body count by becoming bear food or killed by other people.
Cocaine Bear’s flashback scenes stand out among the smoothly-directed film. Though one is particularly funny, others exist to give more context to the story that I’m not sure we really need. However, the somewhat jarring flashbacks fit well enough with the film’s overall excess. Set in the 80s (and very loosely based on a true story in which a bear ate cocaine and subsequently died without any noticeable carnage), Cocaine Bear makes full use of its cultural context. Russell sports a hot pink outfit, while Liotta has a head of hair that could only exist on the head of an 80s drug lord. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score booms over the forest and a bear-related ambulance chase set to Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is a bloody highlight.
You could analyze this film’s constant ties to parenthood, contrasting Liotta and Ehrenreich’s absentee father figures with Russell’s motherly determination to find her daughter. (The running joke about characters concerned with children or animals left behind when they themselves have done far worse never gets old.) In more ways than one, this is a #girlboss movie, showing the power of mothers to protect their kiddos. It might not be a unique message, but who came to this film to see any message other than “what if a bear did cocaine?”
But really, why analyze themes when you can analyze the titular bear? Its CGI looks pretty good and is much better than some obviously digital violence effects. I’m not sure what the rules of cocaine and bears are in this universe, as we are subsequently shown the bear smelling it from far away, being attracted to it, and even being revived by it, but I don’t care because we get to see all of those things and it’s fun. Our bear has a sweet side, too, going straight from killing people to watching a butterfly. It’s nice to see a destructive force that we should be scared of, yet we come around to cheer for at the end of the day, as our heroes realize that humans can pose a more malicious threat than a bear can.
There is an unexpected heart underneath the fur of Cocaine Bear, but you don’t need to pay attention to any of that if you don’t want to. Simply put, the movie shows a bear on cocaine and makes you root for the bear with some genuinely funny jokes from a game cast. What more could you want?