Review – Cocaine Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise… because this black bear just ingested a lot of cocaine and is now on a murderous rampage to find more powdery goodness!

Loosely inspired by true events, director Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3, Charlie’s Angels) new film Cocaine Bear serves as a self-described ‘revenge tale’ for bear appropriately named ‘Pablo Eskobear’ who tragically died of an overdose after consuming over 75 pounds (almost $2.5 million USD) worth of cocaine that was launched out of a drug runners plane over Knoxville, Tennessee.

The events of Cocaine Bear begin with former narcotics officer-turned-drug runner, Andrew C. Thornton II (played in a humorous cameo by Matthew Rhys), unloading his cocaine cargo due to the fact that the load was too heavy for the plane. As duffel bags of drugs descend to the ground to Jefferson Starship’s Jane, the tone of the film is set in place – you’re about to go on one crazy ride!

After a Wikipedia entry text-on-screen offers advice on what to do when facing a bear in the wild, the insanity truly begins when two European backpackers come across a black bear acting quite peculiar in the woods. Upon closure inspection (more so, the bear inspecting the humans), the white-powdered nose of this bear suggests that it may have got in to a couple of containers of snow (I mean, it is a white powder that fell from the sky, right?). The bear becomes aggravated when the high fades away, and the mission becomes simple: find more of the white stuff!

However, an array of people and characters who find their way into the woods on this fateful day get a lot more than they bargain for when they become the fleshy speed-bump (bump! Get it?) between ‘Cokey’ and his medicine! Whether it’s two mild-mannered, small-time criminals who have been sent to find the lost drugs (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a mother looking for her school-ditching daughter (Keri Russell), or the flirtatious park ranger (Margot Martindale) and her wildlife-warrior crush (Jesse Ferguson), no-one is safe from the coke-fuelled nightmare that lays wait in the dense woods ahead.

Elizabeth Banks leans hard into the insane premise of Cocaine Bear, delivering a strong look at her ability to work within different genres. The absurdity of the comedy is on full display, with hilarious and outlandish set pieces that may include a bear snorting cocaine of a human appendage. However, the tension of the bear stalking the humans in the dense forest serves up an element of horror that makes the bear a real threat, even though there is a lot of compassion to be felt for the poor thing and its newfound cocaine addiction. Finally, Banks flexes the action muscle we saw back in Charlie’s Angels with some truly exciting and heart-pounding chase scenes and shootouts, specifically an elongated scene involving an ambulance that was easily the highlight of the film!

Every scene with the bear is a winner, delivering on the namesake of the film and the crazy story of which is being told. The CGI of ‘Cocaine Bear’ is masterfully rendered by the Oscar award-winning team at WETA (Peter Jackson’s company), giving a realistic and grounded vibe that makes the bear scary, but also using cartoonish facial expressions or movements when necessary to keep that absurd feeling alive. The balance is well done in both the animation style and with Bank’s decision to have elements of both for the character of the bear.

Cocaine Bear’s issues lie with in the array of human characters it introduces and deals with. There is far too much happening, with too many people, with too little depth and substance to have you really care about them. After the initial introduction to the coked-up bear, the frantic editing and pacing of the first act that establishes all the main players in this story feels clunky, and the main reason for that is there are just too many characters to deal with, which in turn are forced to coincide in someway with each other’s separate storylines once they meet in the woods.

A local-crime lord, Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta) has an odd relationship with his son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s left the crime world because his girlfriend broke up with, but is forced back in by his friend and fellow criminal, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to get the drugs back before the Colombians come after Syd and his family. That’s just the surface of one of about four different storylines that are happening within this 95-minute movie. And while each character does get a humourous moment to shine without relying on interacting with the bear (highlighted the most between Alden Ehrenreich’s and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s electric chemistry together), it’s impossible not to think how much tighter and entertaining those moments could have been with less characters and more substance behind them.

The movie is split around 50-50 with the amount of bear-related insanity there is, compared to the overlong scenes involving the humans. It noticeably jolts the pacing of the film, and just creates a desire to see more ‘Cocaine Bear’ action!

The largest issue with Cocaine Bear is the third-act climax, that once again involves far too many characters. However, without spoiling who is involved and what occurs, this ‘tense scene of action’ feels like a complete tonal detour from the bat-shit crazy 80 minutes that preceded it. The best way to describe what happens would be to compare it to the finale of a film in which of group of treasure hunting kids get cornered by the bad guys, and try to overcome them by teaching them a lesson about being good people. Not entirely what you’d expect from a movie called Cocaine Bear… and rightfully so, because it’s a shoddy CG-mess that will have audiences scratching there heads as to why the story chose to go in this direction.

Cocaine Bear racks up a line of pure insanity every time that bear is on screen. Banks directs the hell out of these set pieces, utilising an entertaining mix of comedy, action, and horror! Unfortunately, a clunky story that’s overstuffed with too many underwhelming characters leads to a desire for a higher quantity of the crazy quality that is sprinkled throughout.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise… because this black bear just ingested a lot of cocaine and is now on a murderous rampage to find more powdery goodness! Loosely inspired by true events, director Elizabeth Banks (Pitch...Review - Cocaine Bear