In the late 1970s, a string of creature-based horror films broke into the mainstream. Curbing off the success of Jaws, flicks like Grizzly, Orca, and Alligator all found niche success. However, the genre died out after a string of lesser movies burnt out the genre. Meanwhile, in 1985 an absurd story combining 1980s Cocaine druglords and an unfortunate bear made national headlines. Director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden loosely adapt that story into Cocaine Bear. Built-in the vein of previous creature features the action-comedy features heavy gore. However, it remains entertaining throughout, making it one of the more enjoyable movies in early 2023.
After a drug runner (Matthew Rhys) throws cocaine out of a plane, the drugs fall across Blood Mountain. There, a curious bear eats the drugs and begins a rampage across the forest. As the bear begins its killing spree, a slew of unsuspecting parties converges on the mountain. Sari (Keri Russell) looks for her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and neighbor Henry (Christian Convery). Eddie (Alden Ehrenrich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) look for the missing cocaine. Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Reba (Ayoola Smart) look for Eddie and Daveed. Ranger Liz (Margot Martindale) and Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) conduct a wildlife survey. Yet the cocaine-addicted bear brings a tornado of violence into their path.
So far in her career as a director, Banks has delivered slightly subversive comedy bits. While Pitch Perfect hit big, its sequels and Charlie’s Angels seemingly underwhelmed. Without a clear hit in a few years, Banks needed to show her talent in the blockbuster realm. She’s undeniably found it in Cocaine Bear, which is much better than the memes might suggest. She handles the tone extremely well, switching between thrilling action setpieces and building in upsetting gore when needed. Cocaine Bear‘s pacing is nearly perfect, especially after the first twenty minutes.
The ensemble proves game for their roles, even as each feels as if they’re in separate movies. This is where Banks’ handle on tone becomes extremely beneficial. She frames the Ehrenreich & Jackson story as a comedy of errors, borrowing from the success of the Get Shorty-style comedy of the mid-1990s. Yet for Russell, Cocaine Bear feels more at home with Jurassic Park, honing in on the survivalist elements. Banks lets the actors live in their version of the movie and balances the story through the loosely connected scenes.
There are some flaws in the story. For one, Cocaine Bear never actually feels like a 1980s movie, despite leaning into the nostalgia. The polish makes it feel far more contemporary and makes some of the costumes appear cosplay adjacent rather than authentic. It’s a shame because throwing some grain on the “film” or shooting in lower quality digital would make a world of difference. The last act gets weirdly sentimental compared to the rest of Cocaine Bear, which is the only time it really loses the tonal balance.
Still, Cocaine Bear makes for a very fun time. Horror fans will love to see the incredible kills and gore on display. This alone makes Cocaine Bear worth the price of admission. It does not always work as an action comedy, but when it does, this movie is wildly entertaining. While it’s not quite “Jaws in the forest,” Banks delivers one of the most absurdly fun experiences of 2023.