Movie Review: Cocaine Bear

As someone who can get a great deal of enjoyment out of truly absurd premises, when the trailer for Cocaine Bear first dropped, I was immediately sold. Even more so upon learning of the story’s origins in a true event. In September 1985, a drug smuggler named Andrew C. Thornton II dropped 40 containers of cocaine from a Cessna over the woods of northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee before abandoning the plane, after which his parachute failed to open and he was killed on impact. A little over two months later, the body of a black bear was found by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and it was determined that it had stumbled upon and eaten large quantities of the narcotics, causing it to die of an overdose.

The movie, directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, imagines what would have happened if instead of killing the bear it had caused it to go on a rampage through the forest, to outrageous effect. In this universe, Knoxville detective Bob Springs (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) recognizes Thornton’s (Matthew Rhys) body and reasons that the drugs found with it likely belonged to St. Louis crime boss Syd White (the late Ray Liotta) and that there must be more missing somewhere.

Meanwhile in Georgia, single mother Sari (Keri Russell) tells her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) that they will need to change their weekend plans to spend more time with her new boyfriend, which inspires the girl to skip school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) and hike out to the “Secret Waterfall” as originally planned. Bob’s hunch about the drugs’ ownership proves correct, as we then see Syd direct his fixer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to pick up his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and retrieve the cocaine.

When Sari learns of her daughter’s stunt, she heads out to find her and teams up with park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and wildlife activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to search the woods. Shortly after they depart, Daveed and Eddie arrive and the former is attacked in the bathroom by a trio of delinquents who he takes out with relative ease before noticing that they have some of the cocaine on them, which leads him to force one (Aaron Holliday) to guide them to the rest. And so, with all the wheels in motion, everyone’s paths gradually draw closer and closer to that of the bear, and one by one people begin to get picked off in grisly fashion.

Successfully blending horror and comedy can be tricky, as leaning too far towards one tone can completely negate the other, but it is pulled off well here. The brutality of the bear attacks is made all the more suspenseful by the Marvel Studios-style banter that fills the slower scenes, helping to set up several well-earned jump scares. While many of the characters are unlikable, they always retain at least something that prevents them from being truly reprehensible and the core protagonists are very easy to root for, with a game cast who are all clearly having fun with their roles. As a director, Banks proves herself well-suited to the material, leaning into the film’s inherent campiness without ever overplaying it. Those who are able to give in to the sort of gleeful ridiculousness promised by a movie with a title like Cocaine Bear will find a lot to enjoy here. ★★★★

rated r for bloody violence and gore, drug content, and language throughout.

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★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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