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'Cocaine Bear' Review: Campy Horror Romp Delivers Wild Comedy Carnage

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for an old-fashioned gory good time.

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Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
A woman screams as she's chased by a bear in a scene from the movie Cocaine Bear.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods... Hannah Hoekstra as Elsa in Cocaine Bear, directed by Elizabeth Banks.

Universal

Cocaine Bear! There's a bear! It does a ton of cocaine! Movies! Cocaaaaaiine Beeeeaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrr!

That's it, that's the review!

Want more than that? I'm not sure the film has much more to offer, but seeing as this new movie with Ray Liotta, Keri Russell and Alden Ehrenreich is in theaters now, I'll give it a shot. Astonishingly, this gory comedy-horror flick about a bear that does cocaine is based on a true story. This probably leaves you with a ton of questions: When and where, and how, did this happen? What did the bear do when it got high? How did it roll up a banknote with those claws?

The answers are that it happened in 1985 in Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, when a drug smuggler threw millions of dollars of Colombian marching powder out of a light aircraft and scattered bricks of coke across the wild woods. In real life, no one knows what the bear did when it got high, but the movie imagines a highly entertaining drug-crazed killing spree. Obviously the bear didn't use banknotes to snort the coke, it just ate kilos of the stuff a brick at a time. Although those claws would be pretty good for racking up multiple lines in one go.

A modest box office hit behind Marvel blockbuster Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Cocaine Bear is directed by Elizabeth Banks (and produced by comedy filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller). Aside from acting, Banks directed Pitch Perfect 2 and a poorly received Charlie's Angels reboot. Following a comedy and an action movie, schlocky horror is as logical a career progression as any, I guess.

Cocaine Bear's rapid-fire quirkiness and carnage are great fun to watch, especially after a beer or two. Somewhere between a slasher movie and a low-budget creature feature, it throws an ensemble of humans into the woods to face off with a drug-demented black bear. Banks' zingy direction and writer Jimmy Warden's blackly comic dialogue keep the laughs coming, with the ever-looming threat of a coked-up murderbear giving it that midnight movie frisson. The result is a gloriously silly, gloriously gory bearsploitation B-movie that delivers pretty much everything you want from a movie called "Cocaine Bear." You'd be hard-pressed to find a better Friday night moviegoing experience than this unholy mashup of Jaws, Deliverance, Friday the 13th and Yogi Bear. 

The '80s outfits, needle drops and synth-driven score from Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo) add to the tacky retro feel. But possibly the most authentic aspects of this homage to old-school exploitation flicks is the fact it is, ever so slightly, just a bit crap. The humans mostly mill about in the woods until it's their turn to face the bear. One of the most vulnerable yet resourceful characters disappears for most of the movie, which deprives us of spending time with them while completely failing to create any suspense about their fate. That search element of the movie would probably be more involving if it was a chase that required running/fighting/outsmarting of the bear. Instead there's more leisurely wandering in the woods than there should be in a movie that's named, if I may remind you, Cocaine Bear. 

The ending really peters out, but most of all these characters are thinner than a line cut by a particularly stingy drug dealer. The cast members know exactly what kind of movie they're in, at least, with esteemed actors like Margo Martindale gamely building out their country-dumbass characters by delivering turns broader than a barn door. Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, for example, bases his character entirely on a ludicrous wig and fake mustache, making his character simultaneously not enough and too much. 

A cop and three lowlifes lurk in the woods in a scene from the movie Cocaine Bear.

O'Shea Jackson Jr, Ayoola Smart, Alden Ehrenreich and Ray Liotta poke the bear.

Universal

Viral comedian Scott Seiss is a scene-stealer, as is Aaron Holliday. Among the leads, Alden Ehrenreich does his best as a grieving drug smuggler, although he spends most of his time standing around behind O'Shea Jackson Jr. And Jackson's character arc goes roughly like this: starts off a bit grumpy, gets increasingly more grumpy.

A more relatable character is Isiah Whitlock's good-hearted but tough cop. No idea if anyone else feels like this while watching Cocaine Bear, but a big part of his appeal is that the former The Wire actor seems on the verge of saying "Sheee-iiitt" most of the time he's on screen. Well, if a bear on cocaine came at you, you probably would, wouldn't you. 

There's very little, meanwhile, to the villainous drug kingpin driving the action. But the late Ray Liotta brings a snarling, sweaty authenticity just by virtue of being Ray Liotta. The movie has very little to say about the rights and wrongs of the war on drugs (besides sniggering at '80s-tastic "Just say no" ads), but Liotta's furiously desperate performance flicks at the idea that dealers are addicts in their own way, compelled to act in destructive and self-destructive ways by a cycle of dependence and degradation which evokes -- holy shit it's a bear! On cocaine!

A tight 95 minutes of Paddington's cokehead cousin on the rampage, Cocaine Bear is the funny, gory romp we need in a landscape of samey superheroes. Perhaps ironically, considering the amount of recreational drugs flying about, there isn't much substance to it. But what there is, and I cannot stress this enough, is a bear on cocaine. And isn't that what the movies are all about? 

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