When the trailer for Cocaine Bear dropped two months ago; it predictably went viral based on its single, outlandish premise: “A BEAR DID COCAINE!” screams one character. Premiering nationwide tomorrow, Cocaine Bear is much like its trailer advertises: a fast-paced, ridiculous, excessively gory comedy-thriller based very loosely on real events that feels like a much-needed shot of adrenaline. It’s too campy and self-deprecating to be an indelible work of cinema, but that’s not the point: It’s original, and it’s a very good time.
Here’s the plot: It’s 1985 and a drug runner dumps bags of cocaine off a plane into the woods in Georgia; a 500-pound bear finds it, consumes a terrifying amount of drugs, immediately develops an addiction, and goes on a murderous rampage in search of its next hit. An innocent young girl and her friend (played by Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) find themselves in the bear’s path, and their only hope is that her mom (Keri Russell), who goes out searching for her, finds them before Cocaine Bear does. Meanwhile, a group of criminals (the late Ray Liotta, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Alden Ehrenreich) are hell-bent on reclaiming the valuable haul from the forest.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, this high-octane, predator–prey thriller thrives on absurdity. You squeal every time the bear does more cocaine(!) — recharging its bloodlust — and comes across another measly human who quickly realizes that they’re screwed. They scream, they run, they climb, they drive away from Cocaine Bear. It’s a thrill, and it gets your heart racing. If you’ve felt at turns paralyzed, numbed out, and extremely uptight amid the world’s many big problems lately, Cocaine Bear will make you feel awake, all right — like a refreshing second-hand high — even if that pleasure is being supplied by things onscreen that are so deeply wrong. The sound, lighting, and script manage to keep the film light and colorful, even as characters find themselves in the bear’s deadly paws. Fans of films like Alien, Predator, and Jurassic Park might find the suspense of being hunted especially satisfying.
There are a couple of things you’d have to ignore about the film to fully enjoy it — like animal cruelty, for starters. The real-life 175-pound bear that inspired the film was found dead with 35 pounds of cocaine in its stomach, after experiencing cerebral hemorrhaging, hyperthermia, respiratory failure, renal failure, and heart failure, according to production notes from the film’s publicists. That’s not how things play out in the film, which used a CGI bear and which Banks called its revenge story, but it does make light of the real misfortune of animals that fall victim to human folly.
Then there’s the fact that the tweens in the film do some cocaine as well. Banks, who directed the film, said because the characters are still so young, the scene was about their innocence being tested (she also said she has never used cocaine herself). The filmmakers sprinkle in some obligatory “Just Say No” messaging.
On top of that, the film is incredibly, unnecessarily gory, which can detract from the fun if, like me, you find that kind of stuff hard to stomach. (One shocking violent scene involving a gun seems like a tacit indictment of gun use.) Others in the theater thought it was hilarious.
Cocaine Bear can feel wrong, but it asks its more socially conscious viewers to lie back and loosen up for an hour and 35 minutes and just surrender to pure id.
It’s a welcome invitation when survival through the early days of COVID relied on meticulous self-control, caution, and restraint. Things are different these days, but our bodies still carry the memory of being so fiercely and tightly wound in order to shut out danger, and inadvertently shut out so much pleasure at the same time. That’s why Cocaine Bear feels so good, and why millions of people have already watched the ludicrous trailer. It gives audiences a temporary and manic euphoria before they button back up against a sedate but still menacing world.●