“Cocaine Bear” is One Vicious Mother With a Whole Lot of Heart [SPOILER REVIEW]

In 1985, millions of dollars of cocaine fell from the sky over a forest in Georgia. The body of drug smuggler Andrew Thornton was found in a Tennessee driveway while one of his empty duffel bags was discovered in Georgia next to the body of an American black bear that had likely overdosed on the dangerous drug. The unfortunate animal’s stuffed remains, nicknamed Pablo EskoBear, can still be viewed at Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, but what really happened to Thornton’s ill-fated flight and airborne narcotics remains a mystery. With a script by Jimmy Warden, Elizabeth Banks brings a bizarro version of the story to life with Cocaine Bear, an ultra gory horror comedy about a bear and its blow. The salacious title promises B-movie schlock, irreverent humor, and grisly survival horror along the lines of Sharknado and Snakes on a Plane. Bank’s film is all of that and more; a brutal and bloody adventure with a surprisingly sentimental heart.

The film kicks off with a delightful cameo. Decked out in 80s cheese, Matthew Rhys bops about the cabin of a private plane gleefully chucking bright red duffel bags filled with cocaine out the open door, frequently sampling the product along the way. He is Andrew Thornton and this reckless behavior will not only end up taking his own life, but sparking a string of grisly deaths in Chattahoochee National Forest. Red duffel bags litter the trees as a multitude of characters converge on the idyllic setting. A young couple sets out on a day hike. Two tweens play hooky in a thinly veiled attempt to capture parental attention. Cops and criminals scramble to find the missing drugs, a lonely park ranger looks for love, and a pack of unruly teens prey on unsuspecting outdoorsmen. The only thing this disparate bunch has in common is that before the sun sets, they will all encounter a massive brown bear who’s ingested an extreme amount of the snowy stimulant. 

The obvious draw for a film called Cocaine Bear is over-the-top violence, implied by poster art featuring a monstrous grizzly on the brink of a bloody rampage. Banks delivers on this promise with a shockingly gory film and buckets of fake blood. The bear’s victims are dispatched in surprisingly creative ways as it tears through the state park and ranger station. Stunt performer Allan Henry brings this fearsome beast to life in a magnetic performance that’s equal parts hilarious and terrifying. 

With the violence turned up to eleven, Banks throws in a generous helping of off-color drug humor and 80s nostalgia. Garish costumes and fun needle drops add flair to the outsized story while a superb ensemble cast provides the hijinx. Period details don’t feel exactly lived in or accurate, but the campy 80s vibe helps to maintain the humorous tone. It’s a lot easier to watch a teenager get mauled to death when he’s dressed in what looks like an 80s punk Halloween costume. Banks expertly blends the jarringly disparate tones while keeping a tight hand on the expansive narrative. We never linger too long on one particular story line, keeping us from getting too emotionally invested in characters who may be minutes away from becoming bear food.

In addition to Rhys’s hilarious intro, the story features a plethora of fun characters. Kristofer Hivju is Olaf, a foreign hiker with fatherhood on his mind, Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a lonely detective named Bob hoping to make a big bust, Margo Martindale is Liz, a horny park ranger with terrible aim, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson is her pun-loving but clueless crush Peter. Keri Russell anchors the kooky cast as single mother Sari searching for her mischievous tween daughter and her foul-mouthed friend. Aaron Holliday leads a trio of delinquent teens terrorizing the park and Ray Liotta gives a fun final performance as Syd, a drug lord grampa desperate to recover his lost product. However the astonishingly emotional core of the story is the friendship between Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), two dealers sent by Syd to find the duffel bags. 

A third act twist recasts the coked out bear as a mother with two adorable cubs in her cavernous den. They emerge from a duffel bag covered in the expensive white powder and clamor for their mom who will do anything to protect them. This revelation shifts the narrative from a grisly horror comedy to a dark family drama. Mama Bear now seems to work in tandem with Sari, also desperate to protect her children, and they find a common enemy in “bad father” Syd. Themes of paternal strength emerge from the blood-soaked story and we become more invested in the bear family’s survival than its destruction. We instantly forgot about all the carnage Mama Bear has caused and realize that, like the real bear who overdosed in 1985, she can hardly be blamed for drugs that literally fell into her lap.

Cocaine Bear would probably be a hit no matter how dumb. Sometimes we’re just collectively in the mood for a schlocky story that allows us to channel and release fears of lost control. However Banks’s film is much more than a silly gore fest. With a solid cast fully aware of the film’s mission, an over-the-top script with one foot in reality, and a truckload of gory special effects, Cocaine Bear proves to be much more than the sum of its parts. It may not be the best film of 2023, but it’s surely one of the most enjoyable. 

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.