For a film with little to no subtext, Cocaine Bear has a lot going on. It’s a creature feature where the monster is a bear that’s high on cocaine. It’s a nostalgic trip back to the ’80s — the era of tight perms, Members Only jackets, and synthesizers. It’s a winking internet in-joke, with a cast that includes memeable celebrities like The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr. (yes, he does say “sheeeeit”), TikTok star Scott Seiss, and Kristofer Hivju, aka Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones. But most of all, it’s 95 minutes of drug humor.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels, Pitch Perfect 2) and loosely inspired by a true story popularized by an episode of My Favorite Murder, Cocaine Bear has a frenzied energy to match its, let’s say, stimulating subject matter. The film opens with a scene of a man laughing maniacally while throwing duffel bags full of coke out of a plane, as Jefferson Starship — a cocaine band if there ever was one — blares in the background. Soon after, that same man smacks his head on the jamb of the open plane hatch and tumbles to his death in the national park below. Alas, the wrapped kilos of ski powder that land with him do not break his fall. Enter the bear, who comes for the fresh blood and stays for the white clouds of pep.
The rest of the film plays out in a series of interwoven storylines, anchored by the characters Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a middle-management type in a drug trafficking organization, and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), son of bossman Syd (the late Ray Liotta), who’s mourning his wife and really isn’t up for a road trip to north Georgia to recover millions of dollars’ worth of lost drugs. (Daveed makes him come along anyway.) Then we meet Sari (Keri Russell), a single mom whose daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) takes advantage of the fact that Sari works nights in order to ditch school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery).
These characters’ paths cross those of a detective (Whitlock), a pair of bumbling park rangers (Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), three shithead punks, and a very unlucky Norwegian (Hivju) in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Along the way, the violence ramps up from off-camera bush-shaking to graphic gore and blood splatter, and the film shifts from horror-comedy to kids-in-peril adventure.
The quippy dialogue remains rapid throughout, and although the film’s halfhearted attempt at a message lands with a splat, Cocaine Bear does all it really needs to do, by providing an hour and a half’s worth of winking, druggy, bloody amusement. The word “cocaine” is uttered dozens of times, if not hundreds, in this film. And the manic energy and frenzied decision-making associated with the drug is woven into the fabric of the movie itself. So here are the most cocaine-fueled things in the movie Cocaine Bear. [Ed. note: Spoilers ahead!]
The soundtrack. As mentioned above, Cocaine Bear opens with Jefferson Starship’s “Jane,” a song whose riffs practically drip down the back of your throat. Scandal’s “The Warrior,” featuring Patty Smyth, rides a similar treble high, while the Commodores’ “Too Hot Ta Trot” relies more on its rhythm section to keep the energy up. Berlin and Depeche Mode are both ’80s dance party staples, with synths to match Mark Mothersbaugh’s similarly keyboard-driven score. “On the Wings of Love” makes more sense in context, while Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” speaks for itself.
The way Alden Ehrenreich says “penne.” Think Forrest Gump saying “Jenny,” but with a P. Absolutely bizarre.
The scene where the bear does a line of coke off of a severed leg. The imagery here is self-explanatory, but it does speak to two notable things about the movie. First, the bear is obviously a CGI creation, which is actually for the best in terms of both animal and actor safety. The effects are pretty good quality for a $35 million movie: The bear is about as convincing as the digital animals in RRR or Prey. As for the leg, this is neither the first nor the last severed-limb joke in Cocaine Bear. They’re all made of rubber, but one does have a little pump in it so blood squirts out at random intervals, which is fun.
The inclusion of anti-drug PSAs from the “Just Say No” era, including the famous “This is your brain on drugs” ad. The bear doesn’t wear an ironic D.A.R.E. shirt, like all the coolest kids at Midwestern junior highs in the ’90s did. But the spirit is the same. See also: Henry and Dee Dee know what’s inside the wrapped package they find while walking in the woods, because they learned about cocaine at school.
The scene where Margo Martindale accidentally blows a random kid’s brains out while trying to shoot the bear. The blood and gore splattered all over the forest rangers’ station really kick the movie into a higher, more frenzied gear — ya know, like a bump of cocaine.
The scene where the bear does a flying leap into the back of an open ambulance. This sequence is the centerpiece of Cocaine Bear, and the point where it reaches its high-octane potential as an action movie. The scene starts with a pair of EMTs (Seiss and Kahyun Kim) pulling up to what they think is a routine call, only to find two people dead and one barely alive after the bear’s cocaine-fueled rampage through the Chattahoochee ranger station. It ends with Martindale’s face being scraped across several dozen feet of pavement, and Seiss and Kim being ripped to pieces while “Just Can’t Get Enough” plays.
The frou-frou dog Isiah Whitlock Jr. carries throughout the movie. Is this supposed to be some kind of commentary on the domestication of animals? Maybe it would make sense if someone explained it in a bathroom stall at a club.
The way the characters get so wrapped up in their personal conflicts that they fail to notice the drug-crazed alpha predator standing right behind them. Paranoia, scattered thinking, and getting hyperfixated on a topic are all side effects of blow. Usually, the person on coke just annoys everyone around them. Here, the consequences are deadly.
The bear coming back to life after being shot multiple times, because she inhales cocaine with her last breath. She’s fine! (We know she’s a she because Cocaine Bear collapses on top of Ehrenreich at one point, and to quote the film, “Her vagina is on my ear!”)
A bear cub with coke-dusted fur ripping Ray Liotta’s guts out. This wasn’t Liotta’s last role before his death — he currently has three films in postproduction — but the movie does close with an “in memory of” title card.
The straws printed to look like dollar bills that were distributed at press screenings of the film. Universal knows exactly what it’s doing with this one.
The fact that the bear kills anyone at all. The real Cocaine Bear simply died from eating a bunch of cocaine. (It’s currently in a roadside mall in Kentucky — apparently thanks to country singer Waylon Jennings.) But that isn’t nearly as much fun as a bear driven to violence by the massive quantities of drugs in her system, turning both herself and her cubs into raging cokeheads, slaughtering anyone who gets between them and their beloved white lady. The film also ends with a baby bear sniffing and wiping its snout, an image that just wouldn’t be possible if this “true story” stuck to the truth.
Cocaine Bear opens in theaters on Feb. 24.