Cocaine Bear review: An offbeat blast of drug-fueled fun

The black bear in Cocaine Bear.Universal Pictures

Cocaine Bear is a high-concept comedy in more ways than one, telling the unlikely tale of a black bear embarking on a coke-fueled rampage, and delivering both shocks and laughs in the process.

Cocaine Bear is based on a true story. Kind-of. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden stumbled on the 1985 news report of a dead black bear being found with a stomach full of cocaine. No one knows what happened to the animal between consuming the drug and passing on, so Warden decided to fill in the blanks.

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The result is a film that combines comedy and horror, the humor frequently broad; the violence at times extreme. Yet it’s also a film of contradictions, with Cocaine Bear peopled with endearing characters, and filled with a surprising amount of heart.

It’s a heady mix that delivers on the promise of that irresistible premise. Which starts with a man in a plane dropping drugs over a National Park.

Cocaine Bear’s colorful characters

That park is Chattahoochee National Forest of Northern Georgia, and on this particular day – in the summer of 1985 – it’s filled with colorful and eccentric characters, to provide comic relief for the audience, and dinner for the drugged-up bear.

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There’s Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) trying to win the heart of animal rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). While also trying to stop Stache (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J.B. Moore), and Ponytail (Leo Hanna), a local gang who call themselves The Duchamps. And rob people at knife-point when they aren’t arguing about conceptual art.

The soul of the story is found in single mother Sari (Keri Russell) desperately searching for her 12-year-old daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince), who has bunked off school to paint one of the park’s beautiful waterfalls.

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If they’re the heart of the story, there are cops and criminals who bring the carnage. Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is on the trail of the drugs. While Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) are on a similar mission, on behalf of their boss Syd (Ray Liotta), a drug-lord who also serves as the film’s villain.

It’s a disparate group who could be at the center of a compelling story as-is. But then black bear becomes Cocaine Bear, and all hell breaks loose.

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A bear with a broken moral compass

Cocaine is famously a more-ish drug. And once he’s had a taste, Cocaine Bear most definitely wants more. Which is bad for anyone who gets in her way, be they ranger, detective, drug-runner, or kid.

Which is what’s great about Jimmy Warden’s script. His story doesn’t have a moral compass, as Cocaine Bear doesn’t have a moral compass. She doesn’t care if you’re hero or villain, good or bad – Cocaine Bear simply wants to find her next fix.

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Which means all bets are off when it comes to who lives and who dies in the movie, lending unexpected tension to several scenes. Especially where children are involved.

Broad jokes and wild set-pieces

There are jokes aplenty in Cocaine Bear, some that work (Eddie’s burgeoning bromance with Stache is hilarious) and some that don’t (Bob being embarrassed by his little dog).

But the film kicks into high gear when the action starts. Which is also when bodies start to accumulate. The best deaths happen during three major set-pieces that are skilfully choreographed by director Elizabeth Banks.

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The first happens up a tree, and combines graphic violence with big laughs. The second involves an ambulance, where problems mount as the drama escalates, culminating in Cocaine Bear leaping onto the back of the vehicle in spectacular style. While the third happens on, in, and around a gazebo, where Cocaine Bear becomes higher than ever, with grim consequences for everyone in the vicinity.

Nature bites back

Cocaine Bear walks a fine line between sublime and ridiculous, but the script, the staging, and the fine ensemble nail the tone, meaning we are laughing with the film rather than at it.

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Beneath that headline-grabbing surface, the movie also has things to say, about the futility of the war on drugs, and about the terrible way we treat our planet and its creatures.

What happened to that bear bear in 1985 was a tragedy. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden has turned it into a comedy, but one with bite, where the bear gets the revenge she so obviously deserves, in the most gruesome way imaginable. Which is fun, sure, but also makes for a surprisingly cathartic viewing experience.

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The Verdict: Is Cocaine Bear good?

Cocaine Bear is this decade’s Snakes on a Plane in that it’s a film with a great title and deranged premise that combines both comedy and horror. But where that movie was a single joke stretched over 105 minutes, Cocaine Bear has a lot more going on.

The action is good, the kills are great, and the cast truly commits to the bit. Alden Ehrenreich is MVP when it comes to the comedy, delivering consistent laughs throughout. While Ray Liotta dominates proceedings when he enters the arena, his Syd a true villain that you’re just willing to get his comeuppance.

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The savage tonal shifts might not be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of violence that’s blood-red and humor that’s jet-black, Cocaine Bear will send you out of the cinema on a high.

Cocaine Bear score: 4/5

Better than a film called Cocaine Bear has any right to be, this soon-to-be cult classic is a hilarious blast of coke-fueled fun.

Cocaine Bear is in cinemas now, and more of our coverage can be read below…

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The True Story | Jurassic Park’s influence | Ray Liotta tribute | Cocaine Bear video game | Post-Credit scenes explained | Cocaine Bear 2 | Does the bear die? | Cocaine Dinosaur plans

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