Cocaine Bear knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and is ultimately successful because it embraces its absurdity without going overboard.
I remember the first time I saw a trailer for Cocaine Bear. In it, there was a scene of a grown man, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and a child, Henry (Christian Convery), hiding in trees, frantically arguing over whether bears can climb. Suddenly, a coked-up black bear arrives to climb the very trees in which they were hiding. I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of “wow, this is either going to be amazing or utterly stupid. And I’m just curious enough to find out!” Now, months later, having seen it, I can happily report that Cocaine Bear knows exactly what it’s trying to be, and is ultimately successful because it embraces its absurdity without going overboard.
Cocaine Bear follows an ensemble cast (featuring Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr, and the late Ray Liotta among others) who desperately try to navigate a hostile situation when a black bear ingests millions of dollars worth of cocaine and goes on a belligerent and bloody killing spree.
Cocaine Bear’s greatest strength lies in its tone and commitment to its own silliness. From the very opening scene of a fictionalized Andrew C. Thornton (Matthew Rhys) singing and air-humping to music while throwing duffel bags of cocaine out of an airplane in drug-fueled ecstasy, you will know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be. And Cocaine Bear whole-heartedly commits to its established premise: the dialogue is funny without being overbearing or annoying, the movie is aware of its absurdity without relying on obnoxious meta humor, and the cast give spirited and invested performances without needing to constantly mug at the camera and comment on how ridiculous this whole situation is.
That’s another thing that Cocaine Bear does well: it’s a movie that knows how ridiculous it is, but doesn’t overdo the ridiculousness. It has its humor and its camp, but it also has moments of genuine tension and fear from gun standoffs to dark supply closets with danger lurking inside. As comedic as Cocaine Bear is, it seamlessly weaves in thriller and horror elements, knowing how to effectively build tension, and how to release it in a way that remains consistent with the film’s overall tone.
With a premise that sounds like it could be a B-movie plot, Cocaine Bear could have easily been some schlock pumped out quickly and cheaply to make a buck, but you can actually see the care and effort that went into making it. Everyone in the cast gives a great performance with just the right amount of over-the-top without it feeling overbearing: even the two child stars, Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery, give performances on par with their adult counterparts. I would say the acting is a big factor in what makes Cocaine Bear great: the actors give serious performances of normal (albeit extremely quirky) people thrust into utterly stressful situations, and they let the humor flow naturally from a scene’s context and from genuine character interaction.
I suppose a criticism I could give is that Cocaine Bear’s general craft is, while far from bad, perfectly serviceable. While the cinematography and lighting are both completely satisfactory, I can’t think of any incredible shots or tableaus that took my breath away. A lot of the blood and gore looked convincing, and while the bear design was good, you could often tell that it was a CGI bear. The soundtrack was also good in the moment, perfectly reflecting the mood of any given scene, though for the life of me I couldn’t hum you a melody or theme I heard.
But at the end of the day, I’m really grasping at straws to find things to criticize: Cocaine Bear will be an absolute blast for folks who come in with the right expectations. Is it a masterpiece of cinema? Probably not. Is it a bonkers B-movie plot with a massive budget made by people who are clearly having a lot of fun? Absolutely! And if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you’ll have fun right along with them. I hope Elizabeth Banks makes more movies like this one: black-comedy thrillers seem to be a good fit for her. Cocaine Bear won’t be for everyone (especially those who don’t like blood), but if you think this is the kind of thing you’d enjoy, I can wholeheartedly recommend you give Cocaine Bear a try.
Cocaine Bear was released globally in theaters on February 24, 2023.