Cocaine Bear Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

Elizabeth Banks has promised her viewers no more than a bear on drugs, and a bear on drugs is what they get.

A coked-up bear staring at the camera intensely in "Cocaine Bear"
Universal Pictures

Pretty early into Cocaine Bear’s running time, I started searching desperately for the metaphor. Elizabeth Banks’s action-comedy-horror is, as you might have heard, about a black bear in 1980s Georgia who eats a lot of cocaine that fell out of an airplane. The cocaine makes her angry and hungry for more cocaine, and given that she’s already a big bear with sharp claws, the combination is quite distressing for the people in the forest around her. But is there something deeper going on here? I wondered as the bear mauled yet another victim on-screen. Perhaps a critique of selfish 1980s individualism: No amount of money or expensive products can protect you from a coked-up bear! Or maybe it’s a statement about the dangers of our modern world encroaching on nature?

No. Hard as I tried, I could not settle on a deeper thesis for Cocaine Bear. It is 95 minutes of Hollywood storytelling about what would happen if a bear did drugs. I’m probably the fool for trying to summon some profundity from these bloodstained reels; Banks has promised her viewers no more than a cocaine bear, and a cocaine bear is what they get, all growly and crazed and rendered with very expensive-looking CGI. This project does not skimp on its main attraction, but it does seem unsure of what to put around it, throwing a variety of hapless characters in the mix and arming them mostly with indifferent comedy in the face of some truly gnarly violence.

If blockbuster-level gore is what you’re after, Cocaine Bear delivers—I was impressed with how gleefully gross Banks gets at times, dropping severed limbs from the sky and strewing plenty of intestines on the ground. And though the personality of the titular bear mostly manifests as annoyed grunting and mighty roars, she’s a solid visual-effects creation, glaring at every human with the beady-eyed intensity of someone looking for her next fix.

The true story of the cocaine bear is relatively mundane—after drug smugglers dropped their latest shipment from Colombia in the woods, a dead black bear was found with some 75 pounds of cocaine in its system, and was eventually stuffed and mounted. What that poor creature did before keeling over is a mystery, but Jimmy Warden’s script imagines a bacchanal of carnage around that event, retaining only the location (a national park in Georgia) and the name of the drug runner who caused the incident, Andrew C. Thornton (played briefly but with plenty of, uh, entrepreneurial energy by Matthew Rhys). Everything else is pure fiction.

The film’s ensemble is quite large and impressive. A dozen or so (mostly unwitting) characters come across the ursine terror in the woods. There’s the drug lord Syd Dentwood (the late, great Ray Liotta), who bids his bedraggled son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), and underling Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to recover his lost product. Two plucky 12-year-olds (Christian Convery and Brooklynn Prince) skip school to go hiking and get tangled up in the chaos, as do their worried mom (Keri Russell), a salty park ranger (Margo Martindale), a self-satisfied environmentalist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and a dogged detective (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.).

This Robert Altman–esque assemblage of talent largely goes to waste, because pretty much everyone is required to act out the same basic sequence of events. It goes like this: Character peers over the horizon, spots a furry beast approaching, and realizes something’s amiss. Wait, is that a bear? Is something up with the bear? Wait, is that cocaine on the bear’s nose? Wait, is that bear about to eat us? Repeat ad nauseam, with slight variations in dialogue but the same ensuing cacophony of screams and flying viscera. Banks changes up the action as she can, and a particularly energetic ambulance chase crunches people’s bones in unexpected ways. As one of the 12-year-olds yells quite concisely, “It’s fucked!”

Cocaine Bear could’ve been a triumph if the jokes landed, but the zingers just aren’t up to the mayhem. And though the character actors are all capable of sterling work, there’s nobody to root for here; Ehrenreich comes the closest, giving his coke-hunting dirtbag character just enough humanity that you aren’t instantly hoping for his limbs to be torn off. But the main event is the cocaine bear, and the meager humans only distract from her might.