Cocaine Bear is, above all else, a title and a concept, and the movie clearly understands this. Elizabeth Banks’s action-comedy-thriller is loosely based on a 1985 incident when an American black bear ingested a massive amount of cocaine and was found dead soon thereafter. The film concocts a fanciful story — a series of stories, really — out of what might happen if an enormous bear went on a savage, indestructible, coke-fueled rampage through the Georgia woods. It also takes a few cues from its time period, not just in the vintage anti-drug PSAs that open the picture but in pace and style. The mid-’80s was the height of Spielbergian kids’ adventures, but it was also the height of a particularly baggy and brutal period of slasher flicks, and Cocaine Bear carries whiffs of both. It has an ambling, gory insouciance that might have been more off-putting in a movie not called Cocaine Bear.
The film also doesn’t really bother to explain itself. It opens with Matthew Rhys playing drug dealer Andrew Thornton (who apparently was a real guy), cackling maniacally to himself (why?) as he karate-kicks bags of cocaine (why?) out of a careening, pilotless airplane (why?). Then he buckles in his parachute, puts on his sunglasses, kisses off the empty cockpit, and promptly hits his head and drops lifelessly into the clouds. And that’s the last we see of Matthew Rhys in this movie.
There are plenty of other characters — Cocaine Bear’s dramatis personae verges on the Altmanian — but we’re not really here for the characters. We’re here for the bear and the cocaine, and the film doesn’t skimp on that front either. We first see the beast chasing down and shredding a hiking tourist couple, before it suddenly gets distracted by a butterfly. After that, it’s one gnarly melee and severed limb after another, usually involving someone picking up or waving around a stray brick of cocaine and the bear almost magically appearing. If you were expecting an accurate depiction of the effects of cocaine, you’re probably in the wrong theater. If Cocaine Bear had been made in 1985, perhaps the filmmakers would have meticulously researched the subject. But this is a movie made in 2023, so cocaine is yet another superpower.
The film’s greatest set piece involves a slapstick chase featuring a stretcher, an ambulance with its back doors open, a gun, and a sprinting emergency-aid worker, and it’s fair to wish that Cocaine Bear had more scenes like this. But there’s comic fun to be had in variation, too. Sometimes the bear sneaks up on our characters like a grim woodland menace. Sometimes it’s wildly energetic. Sometimes it falls on them and passes out. Warden’s script isn’t particularly intricate, but it is surprisingly quotable. (“You’re safe. Bears can’t climb trees.” “Of course they can!” “Then why are you up here?”) And the film is also surprisingly atmospheric. Like the characters, it wanders around a bit too aimlessly, but by the end you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere.
Banks & Co. appear to have set out to make a cult movie on purpose. That’s usually a backward approach. Cult movies become cult movies over a period of time; they don’t start off as such. They have to fail first and then get reclaimed by us through random discovery, preferably by popping in a dusty VHS cassette out of curiosity or turning on the late show. But we live in hyper-accelerated, echo-chamber times. VHS is a thing of the past, and so is the late show and maybe even the whole concept of discovering things. Nowadays, you have to claim your cult right from the get-go. And to that end, Cocaine Bear is just as good as it needs to be. If it were any better, it probably couldn’t call itself Cocaine Bear.