“Cocaine Bear” is based on a real story that took place in 1985 in which a bear encountered an abandoned bundle of cocaine, ate it and then died. That bear, nicknamed Pablo EskoBear, is now stuffed and displayed wearing a sideways baseball cap at a tourist trap in Kentucky.
Instead of telling a story of human negligence killing defenseless wildlife, “Cocaine Bear” imagines an alternative series of events in which the bear gets blasted off the schneef before going on a murderous rampage… while continuing to consume copious quantities of schnoz candy.
Meanwhile, groups such as a local nurse and her daughter, the park ranger and her park inspector crush, a group of hoodlum teens, an engaged European couple on a backpacking trip and the cocaine kingpin’s crew wander the national forest the bam-bammed bear calls home. These groups intertwine in comedic combinations as they weave their way closer to the bear on their separate missions which vary from rescue to survival to recovering the scattered packages of party powder.
When I write movie reviews, I take a notepad into the theater. After seeing “Cocaine Bear,” I looked down at my pad to see literally no notes. The movie was fun and campy in the sense that it knows it’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t undercut that or relieve the tension in ways that aren’t payoffs of jokes or kills.
“Cocaine Bear” was refreshingly competent for its place in today’s cinema landscape which mainly seems to be occupied by corporate megamovies, auteur-led capital C Cinema films and music biopics. Yet it was missing something.
As the movie settled, I realized that the problem was not what was there, but what wasn’t.
I have no complaints about the execution of the characters. “Cocaine Bear” is a comedic slasher movie so the only necessities are having both characters that are fun to root for and characters that are fun to watch die. This does that.
My issue is instead with the execution of the characters: the deaths weren’t as gruesome or creative as they could and should have been. With everything “Cocaine Bear” does right, in hindsight it slowly becomes annoying that they didn’t do more.
A premise like a bear doing cocaine grants a license to the film — if not outright demands the film — to be over-the-top bonkers and bloody. The 95 minute runtime is a rare and appreciated feature of “Cocaine Bear” but the film only has brief glimpses at what it could be. While there are a handful of fun, well constructed killings by the snow-nosed bear, the film leaves you wanting more. The characters they choose to kill are entirely predictable, which is all the more reason “Cocaine Bear” should be insane, explosive, gruesome, and silly when killing them. It occasionally accomplishes all of this.
Director Elizabeth Banks successfully delivers the fundamentals of filmmaking and occasionally provides glimpses of her skill beyond that, making me wish all the more that she went even further to show off her imagination and talent in the death sequences.
My only other major issue is that Ray Liotta’s character as the intended cocaine recipient has too little screen time relative to his importance to the plot. His character’s lack of development negatively impacts other aspects of the film that we won’t discuss because they’re spoilers. It seems like such a glaring issue that I would’ve expected Banks to have prevented it so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt; maybe Liotta’s untimely passing in May of 2022 or possible health issues in the time leading up to then limited his availability on set.
Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly recommend “Cocaine Bear” as a genuinely fun time at the movies, as horror-comedies often are. I give “Cocaine Bear” four out of five kilos.
Jeffrey Brown is a former Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He writes for The Beet occasionally and does some drawing and photography too. He is a senior majoring in Sociology. Do not feed him after midnight.