'Cocaine Bear': A Rip-Roaring Tall Tale with Southern Flair

A woman in pink and a bear stand on opposite sides of a tree
Keri Russell as SARI in COCAINE BEAR

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but Cocaine Bear makes the best of both worlds. Screenplay writer Jimmy Warden takes the raw inspiration of a true 1985 event and spins an outlandish yarn fit for the shock tabloids.

In 1985, during the height of the "Just Say No" campaign, a drug smuggler dumps 3 duffle bags of cocaine that land in Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia for easy retrieval. Instead, a 500-pound bear, affectionately dubbed Pablo Eskobear, discovers the joys of cocaine and goes on a murderous rampage in search of more. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, Cocaine Bear is a raucous and crowd-pleasing adventure. Walking the line between horror and dark comedy, Cocaine Bear easily becomes my favorite film of the year.

[L-R]: Aaron Holliday as KID, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as DAVEED in COCAINE BEAR

  Before your conscience ignites, don't feel too guilty about laughing or enjoying a "true story" of a bear who goes on a murderous rampage. In real life, the 175-pound bear ate the cocaine and died, most likely in agony. Knowing that version wouldn't make a great movie, Warden takes the showman's route and crafts a story for the ages. In the folk tale world, we call these tall tales. There's Pecos Bill, John Henry, and now Cocaine Bear.

While the bear enjoys the spoils, a quirky crew of random characters unknowingly stumble into the bear's path. Just as a sample, Overworked nurse Sari (Keri Russell) chases after her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who, along with pal Henry (Christian Convery), has skipped school for an artistic endeavor. Sari tags along with park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), interrupting the private nature walk she hoped to share with PETA inspector Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Meanwhile, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his associates Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to pick up the product. Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who has an unusual affinity for his dog, is determined to take down Syd before he retires. These and more characters (including my favorite, Scott Seiss, as Tom the medic) converge into the forest, many of who become part of the Cocaine Bear body count.
A woman and two kids try to make their way through a dark cave with a flashlight.
[L-R]: Keri Russell as SARI, Brooklynn Prince as DEE DEE, Christian Convery as HENRY in COCAINE BEAR
The plot plays like a slasher film with creative and artistically rendered kills, only without the animosity of a maliciously fueled antagonist. The bear doesn't want to hurt anyone; she just wants more cocaine. You have to ask yourself who is best suited to survive such a force of nature – drug dealers, a park ranger, a cop, or perhaps a brave and ferocious mom who understands the bear's point of view.

A group of far makes their way in the dark. The front man is holding a rifle.
[L-R]: O'Shea Jackson Jr. as DAVEED, Alden Ehrenreich as EDDIE, Ayoola Smart as OFFICER REBA, and Ray Liotta as SYD in COCAINE BEAR

Don't go in expecting well-rounded and complex performances. Cocaine Bear pays homage to B movies of the past. The character interactions offer mere window dressing on our path to the next violent and bloody encounter with this bear on a mission. Like performers in a low-grade Quentin Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, the actors lean hard into their role's most exaggerated qualities. With limited time on screen, they make their mark via caricature. It's what they represent that matters. They might as well be roles created for an improv performance – the overworked mom, the rebellious teen, the criminal with a sensitive heart – but that's the part for the course in this type of setup. In order to enjoy the brawl about to take place, we can't get too attached to our ensemble cast.

Elizabeth Banks makes each kill more outrageous than the last, counting on the shock of the vision to carry the moment. My crowded theater had a blast watching this film. Silly old Cocaine Bear.

Release info: In theaters February 24, 2023

Final score: 4 out of 5