“Cocaine Bear” – Equal Parts Gory, Hilarious, and Clever [Review]

Cocaine Bear!  That’s it.  That’s the title, that’s the review.  Those two words are enough that anyone who goes into this movie kind of knows exactly what they’re getting.  However, the most surprising thing about Cocaine Bear, is that it’s so much more than a “so dumb it’s fun” movie.

“Based on True Events”
Opening in 1985, we see a drug dealer drop several duffel bags filled with cocaine into the Appalachian trail, while accidentally dying from his parachute not opening.  We’re then treated to actual news footage from when this event really happened nearly 40 years ago.  And other than these details (and the fact that a bear did find it), the “true story” aspect pretty much ends here.

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Sadly, the real life “cocaine bear” (nicknamed “Pablo Escobear”) died after ingesting 75 pounds of cocaine. It didn’t kill anyone was just found dead of the overdose. The bear was then taxidermized and remains on display in Kentucky.

From here, we get an ensemble of characters descending upon the national park for a variety of different reasons and coming face to face with the titular coked out bear.  The include the drug smugglers trying to recover the lost cocaine (Ray Liotta in one of his last performances, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson), a nurse and mother looking for her daughter and his friend (Keri Russell), a narcotics detective also looking for the cocaine (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and a park ranger and wildlife expert just trying to make sense of what’s happening on their turf (Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson).

There really is no weak link in this cast with each actor bringing their own humor and charm in different ways.  Ray Liotta shines as a drug smuggler who’s clearly accustomed to doing ruthless and illegal things.  And while he’s the closest thing the film has to a villain, you get the sense that he’s doing all of this out of fear of his own business partners in the industry and what they’ll do to him if the drugs aren’t recovered.

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RIP Ray Liotta (1954-2022), this was one hell of a last movie to make!

Keri Russell likewise does a terrific job in taking material that’s incredibly ridiculous and absurd on the surface, but treating it just seriously enough that we all willingly go alone for the ride.  And of course, we can’t discuss the performances in this movie without giving credit to the cocaine-addicted bear herself.  For a completely CGI creation, they do a lot to give her personality, and make her so much more than just a mindless killing machine.

For obvious reasons, it was both easier, safer, and probably cheaper to use a fully CGI bear (with a human performing in motion capture) than it would have been to use a real trained bear.  The bear is deadly sure, but also incredibly charming and funny at times.  The way that it chases a butterfly after brutally mauling someone to death will never not be hilarious and cute.

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Sheh acts very much like a real bear would in many of these situations.

Director Elizabeth Banks made an effort to convey that this bear isn’t just some rage-filled killing beast, rather she’s just incredibly addicted to cocaine and will do anything to acquire and consume more of it.

In keeping with zoological accuracy, the bear doesn’t really go out of her way to maul or kill people, she’s mostly looking for food (or cocaine) and kills people who happen to have it or are in the way of getting to it.  Thus, it makes her actions all the more unpredictable, truer to how encounters with wild animals really are.

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Elizabeth Banks’ goal was to make a comedy inside a monster/slasher film, and she very much succeeded!

Yes it’s violent, yes it’s gory.  But a word to the initiated, it’s “standard wide-release” gory.  Sure there are limbs being ripped off and blood being spewed, but for those expecting something like Terrifier 2 with a bear, this is not quite that kind of movie.  But it’s also not quite the “so dumb it’s funny” movie that most people expected it to be either.

Smarter Than It Should Be
Screenwriter Jimmy Warden admitted that the title “Cocaine Bear” wasn’t even meant to be permanent, but that they could never come up with a better one.  This certainly lead to something of a “Snakes on a Plane/Sharknado” effect, where this movie felt like it was just a cheesy and dumb monster movie that happened to get a big budget rather than be relegated to the SyFy Channel.

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He didn’t have to write the characters this well or funny, he did that for us!

And while it’s by no means an Oscar-contender, it takes its ridiculous and absurd premise and presents an incredibly competently written, shot, and acted movie.  It takes its time in the first act to introduce the characters and keep you interested and engaged with them.  So that as they’re being killed in the most over the top gruesome manners, you feel something more than just the cynical hilarity of watching their bloody deaths.

We would have accepted poor writing, static characters, and a plot that made no sense simply for the gimmick of what this movie promised. But in doing so, it kind of gave us the best of both worlds.  We get that ridiculous monster movie that we wanted, and as a bonus, the characters are actually interesting and well-written.

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Tormund himself from Game of Thrones (Kristoffer Hivju) even pops up for a small role as a traumatized hiker.

Cocaine Bear knows exactly what type of movie it is, and has fun with it, but not at the expense of quality filmmaking, something that a lot of “so bad it’s good” horror films miss the mark on.  Granted, it does have the advantages of a major studio behind it and a $30 million budget, which is nothing compared to most blockbusters, but a lot compared to indie horror.

The result is a film that delivers on the scares, the feels, the gore, and most importantly, the laughs!

What did you think of Cocaine Bear?  What other drugged up animal slasher movie would you like to see?  Let us know in the comments!

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