Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is at its best when it’s just about a bear on cocaine


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Colleen Secaur, Contributing Writer

In 1985, a black bear ate 75 pounds of cocaine in a forest in Georgia, and died of an overdose almost immediately. It’s a weird story for sure, the type of story you could tell your friend to get a, “Woah, no way!” response. A new movie directed by Elizabeth Banks, aptly named “Cocaine Bear,” asks: What if that bear, instead of overdosing, developed a taste for the drug and went on a murderous, devouring rampage to obtain more?

The premise is a goldmine for B-movie fans and gore enthusiasts, and though it delivers more in fits and starts than as an entire movie, “Cocaine Bear” is still wildly fun. Thanks to a roster of talent — ranging from the late Ray Liotta to Margo Martindale — that understands the importance of committing to the bit, it is thrilling to watch a CGI bear lunge through windows and jump into ambulances to maul unsuspecting drug dealers and park rangers. 

The more the characters lean into the silliness of the whole enterprise, the more sensational the movie gets. During an impasse between a cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), two cartel lackeys (Alden Ehnrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and an unwitting local kid (Aaron Holliday), the three shoot each other’s fingers off, and blow surplus cocaine in the air as bait for the bear. It’s riotous fun.

In between these slapstick, gory scenes, “Cocaine Bear” does admittedly grind to a bit of a halt. Does the movie really need to show the backstory behind the cop that’s in the movie for all of 15 minutes, or include not one, but two adorable little kids (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) in danger? As more and more characters are introduced, the film feels less like a deranged carnage flick and more of a third-rate Coen brothers effort. Before you even reach the third act, you realize every time the bear leaves the screen, you’re itching for it to return as fast as it can.

When the bear is on the screen, though, Banks really cranks up the wildness of the whole affair, framing it as a slasher villain who plays by the same rules as Ghostface from the “Scream” movies. The bear lurks in bushes and pops up in dark corners, acting more like a serial killer than a wild animal. The bear’s madness, however, only helps the movie — with each gnawed-off leg and disemboweled torso, the audience grows more gleeful. The fact that cocaine operates as a magic elixir for the bear is the cherry on top — there is a scene in which the titular animal appears to come back to life upon inhaling cocaine dust.

This is a movie that is actively aiming for B-movie status, and it largely succeeds at meeting these aspirations. Whenever it leans too far into sentimentality or dutiful characterization, the film risks losing its audience — at least until the cocaine or the bear returns. 

One of the biggest jokes about the movie has been that it’s all in the title: “Cocaine Bear.” But that’s what we’re there to see, the bear and the cocaine! Every time the movie delivers on its absurd concept, it provides high-octane, chaotic fun.

Contact Colleen Secaur at [email protected].