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Cocaine Bear is a Retro, Roaring Rampage

It's about a bear. That does cocaine. It's crazy.

Man against nature is one of the classic forms of narrative conflict. It can potentially be one of the hardest to navigate effectively, as the antagonist lacks a truly human sense of motive. It can also be the most rewarding, leading to a dramatic reaffirmation of the human spirit when we triumph in the face of an unfeeling, indifferent world. It’s drama. It’s adventure. It’s inspiration. It’s…Cocaine Bear.

Based on true events (yes, really) from 1985, Cocaine Bear tells the age-old story of a black bear living in the Georgia forest that goes on a killing spree after ingesting a crap ton of cocaine that was dropped from a passing plane. Navigating around this literal roaring rampage is Sari (Keri Russell), a mother looking for her lost in the woods daughter; Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), the son and lieutenant of a drug lord trying to retrieve the lost in the woods cocaine; and a whole lot of other people who are going to meet a whole lot of gory, fun-for-the-whole-family deaths at the hands of a bear who’s literally higher than it’s possible for any living thing to be and wants another fix NOW.

And when I say literally, I mean that. The bear ingests so much cocaine over the course of the film that Tony Montana would have called it a night after 30 minutes. In the real-life incident that inspired the film, the bear in question ended up ingesting 75 pounds of cocaine, but only about 3 or 4 grams had made it into its bloodstream before it died of an overdose. It also didn’t kill anyone and was found several months after the drugs had been dropped into the forest.

But where’s the fun in that?

On the next episode of Euphoria

The film sets its tone perfectly during the opening scene, focusing on a plane air-lifting the cocaine in multiple red duffel bags, part of a massive drug haul that’s meant to be dropped in the forest for later retrieval. But as the runner responsible tries to parachute out with several of the bags himself, he hits his head as he jumps and falls to his death while unconscious. It’s another detail of the real-life incident, but like the rest of the film, it’s exaggerated and played for dark, bloody comedy.

Exaggeration is the fuel that Cocaine Bear runs on. It’s an over-the-top, frenetically-paced, overstuffed film with too many characters, too many b-plots, and more squibs and gore effects per capita than just about anything else released in 2023 so far. And thank god for that.

Let me make this clear before I go much further, Cocaine Bear isn’t a great or terribly deep film. It does exactly what it says on the tin. In fact, the title itself was a working title that stuck because the creative team couldn’t think of anything better, much like Snakes on a Plane. Like Snakes on a Plane, the premise is much more amusing than the final product. But unlike Snakes on a Plane, it’s still actually fun to watch, the characters are at least partially endearing, and it sustains its outrageous energy for nearly its entire runtime.

Bears and Jumpsuits In a Forest just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Part of the film’s initial appeal to me, beyond the refuge-in-audacity vibe of the trailer and premise, was the fact that it’s directed by Elizabeth Banks. It isn’t necessarily that she has a distinct style or vibe, but just the fact that it was her. Like, Effie Trinket did this? I’ll admit that I was one of the few people who seemed to enjoy her take on Charlie’s Angels, and she’s definitely refined her action staging here. She handles the overfull cast and multiple plot threads well, finding balance by never lingering on one of them for too long at a time. She does admittedly often take scenes a bit too far; she knows when to stop, but it’s usually two or three steps beyond nearly everyone in the audience.

This film has a very short attention span, but that really works in its favor. We only get to know a select few of the characters well, but considering how so many of them are only here to be set up for creative (if not inventive) deaths, that makes sense. By the time the various storylines end up converging, there’s only a handful of characters left, mostly played by the most prominent names in the cast. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. This is Cocaine Bear. The whole point of the film is to watch a cranked-out bear tear people apart. If you’re not down for that, what are you even doing here?

Another part of what makes the film work its is own sense of self. It knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to be anything more than that. But within that framework, it also finds a lot of possibility. It really has the vibe of an exploitation film made in 1985 in response to the real-life events and then-current social issues, focusing on a kind of wild-eyed what-if imagining with very little basis in reality. Early on, we’re treated to a montage of anti-drug PSAs from the time, starring Pee-Wee Herman, Nancy Reagan, and one very famous fried egg. It ends up giving the film an undercurrent of reactivity, a kind of Reefer Madness-style sleazy indulgence masquerading as a grotesquely exaggerated morality.

It could happen…TO YOU!

Of course, I could be giving screenwriter Jimmy Warden a bit too much credit. And as the film goes on, this metatextual layer of the film gets thinner and thinner as the script constantly tries to outdo itself and take its excess to the next level. The PSA montage could in fact just be a bit of temporal establishment, as if the music, fashions, and decor weren’t enough to remind us. Even the film’s percolating, synth-laden score is done by 80s pop icon Mark Mothersbaugh. Honestly though, as a fairly avid consumer of gloriously trashy 70s and 80s b-movies myself, I can tell that this film works very hard (sometimes way too hard) to really fit itself in with that certain, odd, forbidden section of the local video rental store I discovered as a pre-teen.

Even in the film’s most ridiculous parts, it’s the cast that keeps the film buoyant, preventing it from sinking too far into exploitation-film nonsense. To a person, everyone is on board with what Banks is setting up, giving committed performances that take the film on its own terms. These are serious but entirely self-aware performances that have no small degree of resistance to scrutiny. Keri Russell is especially appealing as a woman who (and I hate to say this but not really) taps into real mama bear energy when her daughter is lost in the cocaine bear’s woods. Alden Ehrenreich displays a level of talent and charisma that honestly surprised me, given that I only knew him as a Z-grade Han Solo cosplayer. Special shout outs also go to Margo Martindale as an ego-fueled park ranger, Aaron Holliday as an oddly but period-appropriately queer-coded punk twink, and Ray Liotta as the grizzled drug kingpin who’s responsible for this whole mess. Even here, in the last role he completed before his death, Liotta remind us why his career endured for so long.

RIP to The People’s Mobster.

One of the best things that can be said about Cocaine Bear is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. At 95 minutes, credits included, it’s just about as long as it could possibly be. Banks knows exactly what kind of film she’s making, and while she maybe doesn’t do anything new with this energy or material, she definitely puts her twisted little heart into it. Is it a revolutionary, meaningful, or philosophical film? Hell, no. Is it a pure, gonzo hit of adrenaline and dopamine that’ll make you forget your troubles for a hot minute? HELL, YES.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-

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