A mom, two kids, a park ranger and some drug dealers enter a national park… bet you haven’t heard that one! That is, until Elizabeth Banks’ latest directorial feature, Cocaine Bear, hits theaters. In what’s an over-the-top, loose depiction of true events from 1985 where a black bear ingested a duffel bag of cocaine, Cocaine Bear is a gory, hilarious and occasionally earnest film that’s a joy to watch and easily the best non-festival movie to release in 2023 thus far.
Cocaine Bear opens with a scene of a man ejecting duffel bags of cocaine out of an airplane. We soon learn that this stash belongs to Syd Dentwood (the late Ray Liotta), a drug kingpin who sends one of his men, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to retrieve it while also getting his own son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), out of his funk (his wife just passed) and taking him along for the assignment.
We then cut to a montage straight out of one of Jason Statham’s films. You know, one of those montages that jump around various states and settings to introduce us to each important character in the film. It’s almost like speed-dating except for the reward for getting to know these folks is far less exciting than it is when you hit it off with someone. Nevertheless, some of our main characters include Sari (Keri Russell), a (presumably) single mother of Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), a young girl who decides to play hookey with her best friend Henry (Christian Convery), after her mom bails on their plans to paint the waterfalls in the local forest. Put a pin in that.
Lastly, we have Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a detective who has been tracking Syd for a long period of time and attempting to take him down, Liz (Margo Martindale), the Forest Ranger and her crush Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an animal rights activist that is touring the forest.
Going back to the kids, Dee Dee and Henry are reported absent from school, alerting Sari who must find them. The kids are the first of the main characters to encounter our titular bear, and this sets the rest of the plot into motion.
All of the various spider webs plots lead each main character to the forest in one way or another — and the film is at its best when it finds its footing. The opening montage, while concise, is a bit of a shaky start and I’ll give you $10 if you could name all of the locations they jump around from. Once the film gets the obligatory setup out of the way, Banks is able to kick back and let the Cocaine Bear do its thing.
Give Banks credit, she’s a rare instance of a director doing their time as an actor before jumping into the studio system as a director. All of her directorial efforts have been “mainstream” studio films, and while I haven’t caught the recent Charlie’s Angels reboot or Pitch Perfect 2, I’d have to imagine that they show promise if nothing else. Cocaine Bear is confidently directed by Banks, who’s adapting a screenplay from a screenwriter with one previous credit (The Babysitter: Killer Queen). The script’s far from revolutionary — in fact, much of the kids’ dialogue is rough around the edges — but the direction makes up for it.
Banks is aware of the film she’s directing and the script she’s translating to the screen — and boy does she lean into the absurdity. Nothing makes that more clear than when the bear is hunting anything that breathes. The bear is possessive of this forest akin to Jason Voorhees and Camp Crystal Lake. And the cocaine does to the bear what spinach does to Popeye (quite literally in a handful of scenes). The action in the film is so unbelievably well-done that you’ll laugh as much as disgusted by the bloodshed. When you’re watching this film, you know damn well that most of the human characters stand no chance against the bear and that their ultimate fate is being ripped apart. That only makes the chase that much more fun.
You also have to give DP John Guleserian (Candyman) his flowers. He frames every shot with so much intention and gets exactly what he wants out of each shot. If he wants a character hiding behind a tree, withholding sight of the bear, he will do that until he deems it necessary to show the bear. The only place where the cinematography falls short is in a scene where there’s a waterfall. It’s more of a lighting issue than anything — almost all of the characters wear some shade of blue in a very dark and blue environment — but it’s the only time where the film lacks any sort of flavor aesthetically.
When it comes to the cast, almost everyone came to play and knew exactly the film they are in. Much like Al Pacino in Heat, the characters are hamming it up to 11 and I’m here for it. First, Ehrenreich never got his fair shot the second he signed on to play Han Solo. As somewhat of a Solo apologist, I think quite highly of the young star. In Cocaine Bear, he’s the one with a conscience in his duo made up of Eddie and Daveed. Ehrenreich and Jackson have great chemistry with their banter — I’d watch a 21 Jump Street-type film with these two in the lead — and out of all of the film’s subplots with human characters, theirs is the most interesting (Ehrenreich even gets his Revenant moment in Cocaine Bear).
Banks also got two good performances out of the youngest actors in the cast, Prince and Convery. More importantly, their relationship is actually quite endearing as their young innocence and naivety have yet to be shattered. Henry’s always trying to impress Dee Dee in the most adorable — though occasionally stupid (like taking drugs) — ways.
There are not many negatives to report with Cocaine Bear. Maybe aside from the lighting in the waterfall scene, there’s one instance where they cut to a flashback that shows us an event that literally just happened, we just didn’t see it. Why wouldn’t you just show us what happened in the flashback in chronological order? It just felt so clunky and really stuck out like a sore thumb.
It also must be said that the film does require your brain to be turned off for the entirety of it. That sounds like a lame cop-out, I know, but there’s no way that you can enjoy a film like Cocaine Bear and have fun if you even raise the slightest of questions like, How did Dee Dee know to leave a trail? or How did Syd get to the scene so fast?
Cocaine Bear is one of the most fun trips to the movies in a long while. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece, but I think that most of Twitter and the greater world at large are aware of the type of film this is, so just have fun with it. The kills are hilarious, and the film leans so heavily into its absurdity that you won’t be able to help but smile throughout. If fate has it that Banks wants to make more of these drug-fueled animal stories, then goshdarnit let her! I need to see Moon Rocks Raccoon and Black Tar Narwhal.
Cocaine Bear is in theaters now.