A Film You Can’t Bear to Miss: “Cocaine Bear”


A historical event turned ridiculous slasher, “Cocaine Bear” reminds audiences of how bear-y fun film can be. (Courtesy of Twitter)

There is a scene in the trailer for the 2023 blockbuster “Cocaine Bear” where Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s character describes the plot in a single concise phrase: “Apex predator, high on cocaine, out of its mind.” If that line doesn’t make you crack a smile — even just a little one — then this movie probably isn’t for you. If however, something about the idea of a bear going on a cocaine-fueled rampage — with all the ridiculousness and hilarity such a premise promises — amuses you, then you should definitely go and see “Cocaine Bear” before it leaves theaters. 

Based (very, very loosely) on true events, “Cocaine Bear” tells the story of a large amount of cocaine that was dropped from a drug smuggler’s plane in 1985. A black bear finds the cocaine and goes on a rampage, clawing its way through the unexpecting visitors to the  Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. In real life, the bear died mere minutes after consuming the cocaine, but the writers of the film insisted this movie was the “bear’s revenge story,” a retelling of what might have happened. 

In the era of too-long blockbusters that seem to drag on endlessly, “Cocaine Bear” manages to squeeze the entirety of its plot into a tight 93 minutes. In that hour-and-a-half, however, the film introduces half a dozen different groups of characters, all complete with different motivations and backstories. A non-exhaustive list of this film’s characters include: Dee Dee and Henry, two middle schoolers who ditch school to visit the national park; Dee Dee’s mom, Sari, who goes after them; drug dealers Daveed and Henry, sent to retrieve cocaine; police officer Bob, following the drug dealers; and Liz, a park ranger with a crush on wildlife activist Peter. 

If that seems like a lot of characters to squeeze into 93 minutes, it is (and there are more characters and plot threads I didn’t mention here). For the most part, however, “Cocaine Bear” manages to balance its enormous cast with scenes of blood-filled gore, never deviating too far from its central premise. 

The characters are entertaining, and at times surprisingly complex, with each character having a backstory that is explored in small ways throughout the movie. The film also benefits from the incredible star power it employs: Keri Russel from “The Americans,” Jesse Tyler Ferguson from “Modern Family,” Isiah Whitlock Jr. from “The Wire” and esteemed character actress Margo Martindale all delivering hilarious performances, never allowing the silliness of the title to distract from the skill of their performance. Perhaps most notably, the film bears the distinction of being Ray Liotta’s last, as he portrays Syd White, the drug lord to whom the missing cocaine belongs. 

The most memorable parts of the film, however, are every time the bear is on screen. The wanton destruction wrought by the titular character is never that horrifying — but it isn’t supposed to be. Most of the time, the audience was cracking up when the bear was tearing people to shreds. One only has to hear the name of the film (and they do refer to the bear as “Cocaine Bear” in the movie) and one can’t help but chuckle. 

It might seem ridiculous to refer to “Cocaine Bear” as a “deep film,” but there is something deeper lurking beneath the surface of this shallow slasher flick. The film attempts to explore themes of parenthood, grief and friendship, and while it never digs too deep (it is, after all, “Cocaine Bear”), the undertones of the story provide a heart to the movie that makes it more memorable than a lot of big-budget action films. 

Flaws aside, however, this film is a joy to watch. From the opening scene, director Elizabeth Banks leans into the sheer ridiculousness of the concept, making it a hilariously self-aware comedy. The opening scene features “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys, portraying drug smuggler Andrew C. Thorton II, dancing around his crashing aircraft, simultaneously tossing bags of cocaine out of the plane door and snorting the drug himself, all while a Jefferson Starship song plays in the background. It’s silly, but never stupid. I honestly cannot recall having such unadulterated fun in a movie theater in years. I highly recommend seeing the film before it leaves theaters, if possible; half the fun of the movie is the reactions of the audience. 

If gore-filled bear attacks aren’t your thing, then feel free to skip this film. If, however, you want an uncomplicated flick to take your mind off midterms, then this is one movie you can’t bear to miss.