Cocaine Bear is A Drug-Fueled Descent Into Pure Chaos

Elizabeth Banks' new horror comedy is exactly the film you think it is.

Keri Russell and a bear stand on opposite sides of the same tree in Cocaine Bear
Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

There are many things in life that sound too good to be true. Fortunately, it turns out that a movie about a black bear that goes on a killing spree after ingesting an entire payload’s worth of cocaine isn’t one of them. Cocaine Bear is, in fact, just as outrageous and crass as its title suggests. It also marks a major step up in quality from director Elizabeth Banks’ previous directorial efforts, which include 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels.

Cocaine Bear sees Banks stray even further from Pitch Perfect 2’s straightforward comedy roots in favor of a story and directorial style that are far more experimental and abrasive. Anyone who goes into Cocaine Bear expecting it to take itself at all seriously will be disappointed. However, those who go into it expecting to experience a purely ridiculous, drug-fueled farce will likely be surprised to discover that the film also has more than a few moments of genuine, stomach-churning horror.

Cocaine Bear, which is loosely inspired by a real-life case from 1985, is far more brutal and relentlessly violent than its trailers suggest. While the film’s overreliance on CGI does dull the impact of some of its bloodiest moments, too, Cocaine Bear still earns its place as the second horror comedy of the year (after M3GAN, another Universal Pictures release) that’s not only worth seeing in movie theaters, but with as big and rambunctious a crowd as possible.

From the moment it begins, Cocaine Bear’s filmmakers make it clear that they understand the assignment. The movie’s opening shots whip and zoom through the cramped confines of a private plane with the same manic, coked-up energy as its sole occupant, Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys), a drug dealer who is in the midst of unloading several duffel bags’ worth of Colombian cocaine when the film catches up with him. After Thornton’s efforts to airdrop his payload in the forests of Tennessee go horribly awry, the film then cuts to a series of on-screen facts about American black bears that all hilariously cite Wikipedia as a source.

These two moments of zany comedy are followed by the brutal death of a Nordic tourist (Hannah Hoekstra) at the paws of Cocaine Bear’s eponymous beast. By the time the bloody leg of Hoekstra’s unsuspecting tourist has been thrown back at her horrified partner, Olaf (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), the final ingredient in Cocaine Bear’s odd tonal cocktail has been made explicitly clear. The film feels, at times, like both a refreshingly modern, irreverent comedy and a callback to the simple American slasher flicks of the 1980s, and its opening minutes manage to efficiently establish both sides of Cocaine Bear.

From there, the film introduces a cast of characters who will all eventually find themselves trapped on the same Tennessee mountain as its bloodthirsty, high-as-a-kite bear. The film’s core players include Sari (an immensely overqualified Keri Russell), a nurse who spends much of Cocaine Bear looking for her daughter (Brooklynn Prince) after discovering she skipped school to go on a trip into the wilderness with her friend, Henry (Christian Convery). Throughout her search, Sari runs into everyone from an inept park ranger (a scene-stealing Margo Martindale) and an easily-spooked environmental activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), to a pair of foot soldiers (O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich) for a St. Louis-based drug kingpin (Ray Liotta, in one of his final performances).

Cocaine Bear’s stacked ensemble cast includes scene-stealing performers like Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and more.

Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

Cocaine Bear’s massive cast of characters provides it with more than a few victims for its titular bear to maim and maul, but it also forces the film to spend a majority of its first act simply introducing many of them. There is, consequently, a long spell in Cocaine Bear where very little actually happens, as its script, penned by Jimmy Warden, takes its time putting all of its characters on a deadly collision course. The film’s pace does pick up, though, once its central bear actually starts to pick off some of its characters again near the end of its first act.

Together, Banks and Warden find the right rhythm in Cocaine Bear’s middle section, which essentially bounces from one insane setpiece to another. Whether it be a deadly and hilarious ambulance chase involving Martindale’s park ranger and a pair of paramedics, or a fittingly zany, prolonged standoff between Jackson Jr.’s Daveed and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s well-intentioned police detective, Cocaine Bear packs in enough memorable visual gags and legitimately thrilling sequences to make the price of admission feel worthwhile.

While Cocaine Bear doesn’t invest too much time into exploring its characters’ interior lives, several of its cast members still manage to turn in standout performances. That’s particularly true of Martindale, Whitlock Jr., Ehrenreich, and Jackson Jr., all of whom perfectly key into Cocaine Bear’s bizarre sense of humor and tone. Banks, meanwhile, doesn’t ever hold back when it comes to the film’s violence. Behind the camera, the director leans all the way into Cocaine Bear’s shades of horror — delivering a handful of on-screen kills that will likely still rank 12 months from now as some of the year’s most brutal movie moments.

The late, great Ray Liotta gives one of his final performances in Cocaine Bear.

Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

Cocaine Bear’s creative team also counts Phil Lord and Chris Miller among its producers, as well as Brian Duffield, the screenwriter behind films like The Babysitter, Spontaneous, and Love and Monsters. While none of them seem to have been directly involved in the writing or directing of the film, Duffield, Miller, and Lord’s shared love of unconventional storytelling is more than present in Cocaine Bear. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t hesitate to lampoon the drug culture of the 1980s (in all its many contradictions) or introduce two new characters halfway through its runtime in the very same scene that it kills them in.

The film is a manic, headfirst dive into pure, unadulterated chaos. Over the course of its refreshingly succinct 95-minute runtime, the film never once feels tonally unsure of itself. It’s a confident, delightfully self-aware horror comedy that isn’t afraid to test just how far it can take its violence and vulgar humor. For some, its revved-up, slightly deranged energy may prove to be more grating than entertaining, but for others, it’ll be exactly what they’re looking for. Either way, Cocaine Bear delivers a high that’s hard to forget.

Cocaine Bear hits theaters Friday, February 24.

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