Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ (the mammal and the magic dust)

A movie that audiences can have as much fun watching as the actors did making.

In 1985 before their plane crashes, a pilot jettisons his cocaine cargo over a Georgia state park. With the missing drugs being tracked down by a Tennessee detective and a beat cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Ayoola Smart), a laundry list of potential victims gathers upon the aptly named Blood Mountain: a couple of kids skipping school (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), a worried mom (Keri Russell), a couple of drug dealers (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) recovering product for their boss (the late Ray Liotta), a ranger and the treehugger she’s sweet on (Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), betrothed Icelanders on vacation (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra), and a trio of skate punks (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore, and Leo Hanna). What threatens them all is a black bear that’s developed a taste for cocaine… and will do anything to get it all.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, the premise sounds like fodder for an old Syfy Saturday night made-for-television movie. The source for the story is nonetheless true: the dead body of a 500-pound black bear had been found after the actual incident with a stomach “literally packed to the brim with cocaine” according to the autopsy. It was found dead, of course: “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that.” Assume for the sake of spectacle this super-bear could inexplicably survive long enough to fill its gut with an all-you-can-eat buffet of illegal substance, what would happen if a number of random passersby got between said bear and his new favorite edibles?

With only Pitch Perfect 2 and the ill-fated reboot of Charlie’s Angels under her feature directorial belt, actor/producer Banks appears to have hit her stride with “Wrong Place, Wrong Time: the Movie.” The film soaks in every mid-eighties reference it can, from pink jumpsuits and heartthrob posters to amber sunglasses and Sony Walkmans, but none of that matters; the movie lives up to its title and delivers unto audiences exactly what it promises: an apex predator strung out on oodles of coke. Giving this ridiculous concept the disaster movie treatment instead of settling for slasher horror builds goodwill toward characters and surprisingly grounds the film, happily resisting the urge to become merely “CokeBearNado.” Leaving no orange duffel bag unopened, even the bear has a backstory.

With Weta Workshop VFX bringing the titular bear amazingly to life, a surprisingly great cast sells the absurdity of it… up to and including dying horrifically. If there’s a shortcoming here, it’s in the dark humor: people are having their faces eaten off and being torn limb from limb, and it isn’t happening to random people. “Should I laugh? Everyone else thought that was funny, right?” As the arbitrary motivations push potential victims further into danger, the kills are graphic and brutal. With one or two notable exceptions, it’s inhumanly difficult to dismiss in spite of being addictively entertaining — like rubbernecking at a traffic fatality. Each attack ends in wondering how much worse the next is going to be, and it doesn’t disappoint. There will be blood — so much blood — and the camera doesn’t cut away; it’s a horror-lover’s wet dream and a parental guidance group’s worst nightmare.

2023 had already gotten off to a great start with small and not so small horror films and thrillers — most of them not sequels — and the trend isn’t slowing down. With more coming up next week and throughout March, even with one notable sequel there’s still a lot to look forward to. No one asked for a cocaine bear, but we got one anyway; depending on the box office success, it’s only a matter of time before we get “PCP Penguins” or “LSD Llamas,” right?

Cocaine Bear is rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout, and why did no one use the moniker “Pablo EscaBear” anywhere in the film?

Three skull recommendation out of four

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