Who, what, where, when, why? A bear, heaps of cocaine, Chattahoochee National Forest, 1985 and she just really loves the drug. “Cocaine Bear” is a movie about a bear doing — you guessed it — cocaine. Copious amounts of cocaine. The semi-true story, based on a bear found dead next to a duffel bag of cocaine in 1985, provides perfect studio fuel for a movie dramatization.
An airborne drug trafficking mission gone wrong that scatters bricks of coke across the forest cracks the story open. After this point, the stakes are pretty simple: The police want to get to the source of the drug supply and the drug baron wants to get the drugs back. But a bear noses its way to the powder before they can, leaving them between a rock and a hard place.
The ursine menace’s high quickly snowballs into a murderous tornado on the people scrabbling to recover the contraband. There’s the drug lord Syd (Ray Liotta), who sends his henchman Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) down to the national park, with police officer Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) hot on their tails. Then there’s Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery), two middle schoolers playing hooky from school who stumble right into the bear’s path. Dee Dee’s mother (Keri Russell) goes to find her with the “help” of an absentminded park ranger (Margo Martindale), who flakes on the mission so she can woo a conservationist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). A band of delinquents and some comedic medics round out the cast, providing a strangely large ensemble for a film as short and to the point as this one.
Much like how the shark in “Jaws” can smell a warm body from just about anywhere in the ocean, the cocaine bear develops a flair for sniffing out blow. If anyone lurking in the woods discovers a lone brick within some shrubbery, the bear — full of grit — is about to be there too. And once the bear gets to the cocaine, it’s game over. The drug unlocks superhero-like powers for her, from super speed to the ability to jump between trees.
To start with what works in the film, every scene focused on the cocaine-fueled black bear with a taste for blood is wildly entertaining — and quite funny, too. After dismembering someone who tries to climb a tree for safety, the bear snorts cocaine off of their detached leg. The medics’ attempt to save one of the bear's victims results in an ambulance chase — and you can probably guess by now who claws her way to victory. These moments are pearls because they are wholly unserious. With a premise as stimulating as this one, all the movie needs to do is deliver on the promises it makes. “Cocaine Bear” is able to do that, just not consistently enough to avoid crashing.
So what doesn’t work? For one, there’s not nearly enough of the bear on cocaine in “Cocaine Bear.” Besides a preview of the bear’s future rampage at the very start of the film, the movie lumbers about for a half hour before finally plowing into the high-octane bear action. With a runtime of just over 90 minutes, that’s simply too much of the movie not dedicated to the bear.
Instead, these first 30 minutes bump out the bear to focus on character backstories, which are generally unnecessary. There is an attempt to craft a series of parallel stories focusing on themes of parenthood, which ultimately feels like a major detour from what this movie needs to be. Truthfully, the film would work best from the bear’s perspective with just a smidgen of dialogue, focusing entirely on the sheer hilarious brutality of the rampage. The human performances don’t necessarily take away from the film, but the bear’s storyline simply has more legs to stand on.
“Cocaine Bear” is a good, carefree time at the movies, even if its structure fittingly consists of short bursts of euphoria spaced out by periods of fatigue. Its humor occasionally feels too far manufactured from its raw form, as though the makers of the movie knew how off-the-rails the concept is and therefore felt no need to develop something with a little more craft. But despite all of this, there are key nuggets in “Cocaine Bear” that capture lightning in a bottle. The movie isn’t unenjoyable, but it leaves viewers craving a bigger fix. While more sophisticated audiences may hold their noses, “Cocaine Bear” is an original studio film that swings for the fences, often leaving the viewer snorting with laughter.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.