Cocaine Bear, a film that sounds like it was dreamed up between bong hits, arrives in theaters today. Like Eight Legged Freaks, Snakes on a Plane, and Sharknado before it, the premise fits squarely into the “animals behaving badly” subgenre of elevator-pitch movies. Based on the title and the tagline—“Apex predator, high on cocaine, out of its mind”—you know what you’re getting when you buy a ticket. And who wouldn’t want to see a bear on a drug-fueled rampage? It’s an easy sell.
Unfortunately, Cocaine Bear is not good, and not even in a “still worth watching intoxicated” way. The film just doesn’t land right, and you can’t help but feel that it was manufactured just to be chopped up for a viral YouTube trailer.
The movie is “inspired by real events” in the same way that the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is inspired by real marshmallows. The true cocaine bear, which roamed the Georgia mountains until one fateful day in 1985, was of the American Black variety, weighing in at 175 pounds. The story goes that a police officer-turned-drug smuggler hurled several duffle bags of cocaine from a plane and then met his own demise while trying to parachute from the craft himself. The bear that discovered one of his cocaine care packages was found dead three months later with nearly 4 grams in its bloodstream and its stomach “packed to the brim” with the white stuff. Following the incident, the bear was stuffed and displayed in the wonderfully named Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. The mall dubbed the creature “cocaine bear” in 2015.
Creative liberties, fortunately, were taken for the film. This bear has a lot more fun. The movie opens on a plane zooming over the forests of Chattahoochee, Georgia, with an aviator-clad guy who cannot be anything other than an ’80s drug dealer disco dancing and hurling red duffle bags out of the emergency door. He meets nearly the same inglorious end as his real-life counterpart, banging his head and falling out unconscious after the bags.
Cocaine Bear then cuts to an amorous pair of hikers in the woods below. They are deeply in love, harping on about their wedding and their oneness with the natural world, and therefore destined for a foul end. Sure enough, they spot and begin to take pictures of a bear, and the audience gets its first glimpse of the bristling CGI beast, coked up to its eyeballs, gyrating against a pine. Bloody limbs are soon flying through the trees. Cocaine Bear, you have been warned, is brutal. In the heat of the maulings, the film shifts from comic to disturbing: Intestines are exposed; heads roll.
The stage is set, then, for a cast of wacky characters to descend on Blood Mountain to retrieve the gear. You have Syd White, arch-drug dealer (played by the late Ray Liotta); his wimpy son with a penchant for plain penne pasta (played by Solo’s Alden Ehrenreich); and Syd’s deputy, Daveed, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. There is also a police detective, played by The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr., who is hot on their trail and worried about his coiffured “fancy dog,” Rosette. Also tempting death-by-drug-bear: a pair of kids cutting school and a concerned mother in pursuit, a park ranger and a Smokey Bear-loving wildlife man, and a gang of colorfully dressed hoodlums who patrol the woods stabbing people for loot. Some are viciously mauled, and some aren’t. Then the film ends.
Viewing this cynically, Cocaine Bear was designed to generate algorithmic attention, like that yassified little dance by the M3GAN doll. Blending two of the internet’s favorite topics—animals and drugs—makes it easy meme fodder. The problem is, the movie feels like a setup for a lot of online jokes but tells relatively few of its own. Any cokeheads who—like stoners at a Judd Apatow flick—await every knowing wink will be disappointed: These are surprisingly few and far between. More interestingly, and disappointingly, there are vague gestures to ’80s staples like Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign and the famous fried egg “this is your brain on drugs” commercial, but they’re never thoughtfully explored, or even truly satirized.
All of this points to Cocaine Bear’s biggest drawback: It’s just not funny. Elizabeth Banks is a gifted comedic actor, and her direction elevates the banter, but bar one amusing scene where the kids assume that you eat coke by the tablespoon, the script largely falls flat. For a movie about a stimulant, there’s a remarkable lack of zip; events plod along like a sober bear. The biggest laugh comes when Christian Convery screams, with big Spring Breakers energy, “It was fucked!” You realize afterward that the best of Cocaine Bear came in its trailer—the rest is a buzz kill.