Cocaine Bear: Off the Rails
Cocaine Bear (2023)
Directed by Elizabeth Banks
Starring Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Cocaine Bear’s box office success is a refreshing surprise that bodes well for films of similar ilk. Start with a bonkers premise, hire a smart young writer to have fun with a menagerie of characters, then cast those characters with a mix of legitimate stars and promising up-and-comers.
Pulled from a 1980’s headline and explained by Tom Brokaw through archival news footage, the plot for Cocaine Bear is simple. A plane goes down in Tennessee. Several kilos of cocaine are found on the pilot’s dead body. Investigators determine that several kilos of cocaine fell into the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest before the plane went down. A pair of kids, two park rangers, three juvenile delinquents, a city cop and two low level gangsters all converge on the scene, but our titular character has something to say about who ends up getting the powder.
Cocaine Bear’s gore is played for laughs, but the violence has consequences and moves the story along. The action sequences are well done and, even though the CGI for our title character is rough around the edges, it seems to add to the film’s overall campiness. The third act, which takes place at night, is too dark to see the action clearly but I get it – what better way to hide poor CGI than to hide it in darkness? Elizabeth Banks gave us the underrated Charlie’s Angels (2019) reboot and with Cocaine Bear she’s established herself as a director who can make a 40-million-dollar movie look like it cost 100 million.
I was happy to see two young promising actors carry the first act, Brooklynn Prince as Dee Dee and Christian Convery as Henry. Each actor made audiences smile and cry in their previous role as Moonee in the Florida Project and the kid with antlers in the Netflix series SweetTooth, respectively; here they make us laugh as they ingest cocaine and then get chased by a bear.
Character actors Margo Martindale and Isiah Whitlock Jr. add to the insanity on the other end of the age spectrum. Whitlock Jr. is hilarious as a city cop in the country, though I was disappointed Banks didn’t let him drop an obligatory “shiiiiiiiiiiiiit” in the style of his character on the HBO series The Wire.
Cocaine Bear also marks the last role in actor Ray Liotta’s illustrious career and, though the film is silly, his performance is a perfect going away present to audiences who have adored him since his turn as Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990).
Rounding out the cast are other bonafide stars like Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Alden Ehrenreich. Each has fun with their minor role, relishing in the absurdity and taking advantage of the 1980’s movie tropes that make the jokes even funnier.
The jokes, as well as the overloaded script, were written by Jimmy Warden, whose only other writing credit is the hilarious horror comedy The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020). Here he teams up with Banks to pen a fun and truly bonkers hour and a half.
Cocaine Bear isn’t a great film. It isn’t even a good film. My main gripe is that there are just too many characters. But while Cocaine Bear isn’t a great film, it’s a very entertaining film and a good sign for movie theaters. Fans and theatres both need this kind of mid-budget crowd pleaser to fill the gap between Marvel megahits and Arthouse indie films. Thanks to studios like Blumhouse and now even the mighty Universal Studios taking chances on films like Cocaine Bear, we may see more of these bonkers, good-time films in the near future.
If Paddington 2 (the best movie starring a bear) is an A then this slightly less tolerant Cocaine Bear is a C.