Cocaine Bear (2023) Review

Remember the scene in Walter Hill’s Red Heat, where Schwarzenegger’s Ivan Danko confronts the wanted criminal Viktor (Ed O’Ross) in the bar and ends up grabbing one of his men played by Norbert Növényi, throwing him to the ground and twisting his prosthetic leg that contains white powder after he pours it out?


It was Schwarzenegger’s iconic line spoken in Russian. I can’t help but imagine if that prosthetic leg is digitally replaced with the leg of a furry black bear and has the same moment repeated with the cocaine powder pouring out onto the ground. Now, that would be a fun and trippy callback to be included in Cocaine Bear.

Well, the words “fun” and “trippy” are best described for Elizabeth Banks’ latest film but only to a certain extent. More like it’s a decent horror-comedy that it could have been potentially a great one instead. The film itself is actually based on a true story — yes, that’s right — of the black bear ingesting cocaine that is found scattered in the Georgia forest. Apparently, this news happened way back in 1985 when the parachute-wearing drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton II attempted to leap from his plane, only to end up dead during the fall while carrying heavy loads of cocaine on his body.

The ambulance chase scene in "Cocaine Bear" (2023)

Cocaine Bear doesn’t waste time going for the laughs (the opening plane scene featuring Matthew Rhys in a hilarious cameo appearance as Andrew Thornton II) and later, a coke-addicted titular bear that goes on a rampage against a pair of foreign tourists (Kristofer Hivju and Hannah Hoekstra). But Banks, who directed Jimmy Warden of Netflix’s The Babysitter: Killer Queen fame screenplay, doesn’t just settle for the two tourists. The film spreads out with multiple characters interconnected with each other, which include the nurse-mother (Keri Russell’s Sari) who discovers her teenage daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her pal (Christian Convery) have sneaked into the forest. She soon enlisted the help of a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and an animal-rights activist/wildlife expert of sorts (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to locate her daughter and her friend’s whereabouts.

Elsewhere, there’s Syd (Ray Liotta), the drug kingpin who wants his son (Alden Ehrenreich) and his trusted enforcer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to recover his missing stashes of cocaines in the forest at all costs. But their search is interrupted by a local detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who’s been longing to catch Syd and his men.

The interconnected storyline is a hit-and-miss affair and the thing that glues the movie together is the appearance of the titular bear. The bear is undoubtedly the major selling point here and for that, Banks has your wish come true. We have a bear that snorted too much coke and goes crazy in attacking and killing human victims. Moments of gory scenes are depicted in a playful mix of horror and dark comedy but it was this particular scene that excels the most. An elaborate scene takes place within the ranger station, followed by an exhilarating chase revolving around an ambulance and an angry bear. Banks certainly goes all out here and at one point, there’s a scene — well — let’s just say it has to do with dragging across the concrete.

Ray Liotta in his final performance in "Cocaine Bear" (2023)

The bear’s scene-stealing performance is a combination of CGI and Allan Henry’s — a student of Andy Serkis — motion-capture acting prowess. Whether it was the movements or expressions, the bear simply oozes with lots of personality whenever it shows up on the big screen. Of course, it’s not like the human actors are being relegated to underwritten roles, with Keri Russell as well as Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery deserving equal mention for their adequate performances. Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr. both deliver decent support while Ray Liotta, who is sadly playing his last performance before he died in his sleep last May, pulls off his usual sinister charm as Syd. The film also features some good cameos such as Kahyun Kim and Scott Seiss, who certainly have a field day playing the freaked-out paramedics after encountering the bear.

Although Cocaine Bear wears out towards the underwhelming third act, I have a good time watching it. Of course, it would be so much better if Banks pushes the crazy premise a few notches more. At least her latest film is an improvement over her ill-fated reboot of Charlie’s Angels which crashed and burnt to the ground as one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in 2019.