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Cocaine Bear 2023 Movie Review
For a movie titled with all the sophistication of the phrase “search engine optimization,” the bloody action comedy “Cocaine Bear” delivers on its promises. Though it may sound like the hottest gay bar in Medellín, the gayest thing about “Cocaine Bear” is Margo Martindale’s brazen flirtation with Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Categorically undefinable by design, Elizabeth Banks’ outrageously grisly comedy uses a deep roster of talent for her (clever, but obvious) cash grab, serving A-list backing with B-movie appeal. It’s neither groundbreaking nor particularly smart, but it’s 95 minutes of over-the-top fun. It’s the quick key bump the historically sleepy February movie season needs.
Directed by Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, “Cocaine Bear” is loosely inspired by the true story of a Black Bear (unfortunately nicknamed Pablo Eskobear) that died after ingesting a duffle bag of cocaine in 1985. Taking this premise and running with it fully into the depths of utter mayhem, the movie opens with a drug kingpin (the late Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen roles) dispensing his muscle Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his heartsick son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) in search of a massive amount of missing product.
The missing packages landed somewhere in the appropriately named Blood Mountain National Park in Chattahoochee, Florida, the dominion of iron-fisted park ranger Liz (Martindale). As she applies lipstick in anticipation of a visit from her beloved game warden Peter (Ferguson), she must fend off the local hooligans, a fearsome trio that inspire the alliterative warning: “Pop-art punks pop-up out of nowhere.” Meanwhile, single mom Sari (Keri Russell) rushes off to work while her mischievous daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) cuts school with plucky sidekick Henry (Christian Convery).
As the kids set out in search of a secret waterfall in the park, they discover an unmarked package wrapped in brown paper. They’re astute enough to guess its contents but innocent enough to think a teaspoon’s worth in the mouth is a smart idea. After spraying most of what they try all over each other’s disgusted faces, the kids are the first to encounter the amped-up bear, which has become ferociously violent in its search for more cocaine.
When Sari and the park rangers discover Henry hiding high in a tree, scrawny legs dangling, he has lost his friend in the woods. Once the bear makes its first bloody kill, a bone-crunching display that ends with the well-timed plop of a severed leg, Henry earns a solid laugh when he wisely predicts, “Kinda seems like a thing that stays with a man forever.”
As more and more characters pull up to the ill-fated parking lot, including two sorely underprepared EMTs, it adds an endless string of potential victims for the bear’s drug-addled charges. But the bear isn’t the only one to draw blood; a few surprise killers keep things interesting, including the trigger-happy park ranger, which Martindale plays off with hilarious nonchalance. She may be a terrible shot, but she sure is confident. (Fans of “The Americans” will no doubt enjoy seeing Russell and Martindale reunited onscreen, though with far less Cold War-era subtlety.)
While the jokes and gore keep on coming, they rarely inspire the level of vocal reaction that viewers expect from a movie with the promise of “Cocaine Bear.” Sure, people are disemboweled, and the bear does a line off that severed leg, but neither the effects nor humor feel particularly new or surprising. Banks makes use of juxtaposing music cues to guide tonal shifts, but the movie delivers few real jump scares or properly disgusting splatters, at least for anyone primed for such things. A running semi-gag about a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who adopts a fluffy white dog falls terribly flat, and the whole storyline with Eddie and Daveed never makes much of an impression despite being a major plot line.
The scenes feel a bit strung together, which isn’t helped by obvious cuts revealing shoddy editing. A one-off flashback to reveal what happened a few minutes prior is out of place and unnecessary, an odd choice made all the more glaring by the expository line, “You saw what that bear did to her!” Similarly, the fluffy white dog appears in a dying vision to little effect. If that’s what it takes to keep the action to a tight 95 minutes, maybe just lose the entire subplot about some lost Austrian hikers.
The blatantly ridiculous appeal of “Cocaine Bear” is proof enough that the project isn’t lacking in self-awareness, but to what end? It’s not unhinged enough to qualify as full-blown parody, and not smart enough to be called satire. Banks seems uninterested in directly referencing exploitation movies of the past, or in burying winking cultural critiques within the outlandish action. Maybe that’s too much to ask from a movie called “Cocaine Bear.” Like its title, what you see is what you get.