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‘Cocaine Bear’ Review: An Uber-Violent, Drug-Fueled Survivalist Romp

3/5 stars

The titular Cocaine Bear of Cocaine Bear being a bear and doing some cocaine, in the woods, like a bear.

If you were on Twitter a month or two ago, you’d know you weren’t able to scroll for five minutes without seeing someone make a joke about the trailer for Cocaine Bear, a movie whose central conceit sounds so ridiculous it may as well be a 30 Rock cutaway joke. While it may be hard to believe, though, the events of Cocaine Bear did (sort of) happen—and now, nearly forty years later, cocaine bear’s story has made it to the big screen, courtesy of director Elizabeth Banks. Though the characters may not be all that memorable and the film itself is lacking in stylistic flair, Cocaine Bear fulfills the brief of a wildly violent coke-fueled struggle for survival in the woods.

Starring Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Ray Liotta, Cocaine Bear (inspired by a true story) follows a ragtag group of survivors who find themselves in a fight for their lives after wandering into a Tennessee forest where (unbeknownst to them) a wild black bear has ingested several kilos of cocaine. All in the forest for different reasons, the stragglers race to find a way out before the drug-fueled bear mauls them—but by the time the credits roll, Pablo Escobear has claimed more than a few unsuspecting victims.

First things first: How much of this mind-bogglingly violent film is actually based in truth? There was actually a bear that accidentally ate 75 pounds of cocaine in Tennessee, but it didn’t kill anyone—meaning the film’s unrelenting dedication to coming up with new and grotesque ways for characters to be mauled by a bear is all courtesy of screenwriter Jimmy Warden. And violent it certainly is! Cocaine Bear makes extreme use of its R rating via some of the most gruesome, cringe-inducing violence in recent memory. From chunks of brain to beloved character actress Margo Martindale being dragged across the pavement like roadkill, exorbitant violence is the film’s bread and butter.

Related: Cocaine Bear Is a Pre-Packaged Cult Hit on The Escapist

That’s not to say Cocaine Bear is particularly frightening, though. Despite its penchant for violence, the tone undoubtedly veers more towards the bizarre and comedic, resulting in a viewing experience that’s wildly entertaining but strangely mismatched. From the marketing to the soundtrack to the casting, there’s a tongue-in-cheek humor about Cocaine Bear that eases the joints of the clunky script, but can also make the more grounded first act feel tedious and arbitrary, especially when the film is fully aware that the audience is really only here for the bear.

Outside of the titular bear herself, the film has a surprisingly large (and star-studded) ensemble cast of Tennessee locals, including Keri Russell’s Sari, who’s in the woods in search of her daughter DeeDee (Brooklynn Prince) and her daughter’s friend Henry (Christian Convery). Though Sari is thoroughly uninteresting and by-the-numbers, DeeDee and Henry are a dynamic duo, especially when child actors Prince and Convery are delivering foul-mouthed dialogue and, yes, snorting coke.

The other trio features Jackson Jr.’s Daveed, a drug dealer looking to get the cocaine back for his boss (Liotta), who’s accompanied into the forest by boss’s son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and troublesome teen Stache (Aaron Holliday). This combination of characters is undoubtedly the film’s strongest, with Ehrenreich’s pitch-perfect comedic timing playing beautifully off of Jackson Jr. as the straight man and Holliday as the wildcard.

The cast doesn’t stop there, though: In addition to the six main survivors, the forest is also littered with a whole slew of expendable supporting players to be picked off by the bear in its coke-fueled rage, though some are more memorable than others. Though Margo Martindale’s presence is always a welcome sight, she’s somehow underutilized here, lost in the sheer volume of characters wandering around the world of the film. The same problem goes for Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Bob, an earnest police detective whose story feels just a little too sweet for the movie it’s in.

While an ensemble cast nearing a baker’s dozen is certainly excessive, in the end, the distractingly large set of characters isn’t enough to fundamentally detract from the excessive camp and violence of Cocaine Bear. Though lacking in substance or originality beyond the hook of the premise, there are enough creative kills and surreal comedic beats in Cocaine Bear to make for a rollicking ride of a survival thriller.

(featured image: Universal)

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Lauren Coates is a Chicago-based film & television critic and freelance journalist who works as a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. You can find her on Twitter @laurenjcoates and read more of her work on Culturess.