The following contains spoilers for the movie "Cocaine Bear."
SPOILER ALERT: The bear does cocaine.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive into the juicy details of this unlikely animal’s addiction. Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear (2023) is a black-comedy thriller based on the true story of Pablo Eskobear, a black bear who got his paws on some cocaine – after convicted drug smuggler Andrew Thornton dropped some from a plane and died in a parachuting accident in 1985 – and died. Rumors circulated that the bear consumed around 35 pounds of cocaine (reported numbers vary), though only three or four grams were found in its bloodstream during an autopsy.
I went to see Cocaine Bear at the 80s-themed Alamo Drafthouse in Wrigleyville for full retro immersion – definitely worth the visit. The film explores the possibility of the bear surviving beyond its real-life overdose and going on a murderous rampage in search of its next fix. Starring Keri Russell, Ray Liotta, and my beloved character actress Margo Martindale – among others – the ensemble covers a range of stories and experiences against the bear.
When Cocaine Bear acknowledges its own absurdity, it’s great. The plotline is crazy enough as is, but even the characters are wacky. Two middle schoolers find cocaine in the woods and pretend they know how to use it; a drug smuggler more concerned with his jersey and Jordans enlists the boss’ mourning son to recover the lost cocaine; a gang of unthreatening teen boys attempt to jump said drug smuggler, and park rangers battle with the bear until the EMTs come and seal their grizzly fates.
There are some light laughs: Martindale’s deadpan ranger character steals the show, and crazy hijinks ensue as everyone tries to comprehend the power of a black bear on cocaine. A little boy swears a lot (which is initially amusing but gets a little stale) and an animal rights activist played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson considers a career change before being mauled. For the most part, the film doesn’t try to communicate some great moral lesson or have any deeper emotional impact, and that’s when it’s at its best – it sets a rather hilarious tone and keeps it pushing.
Toward the end of the film, Cocaine Bear tries to bring in some sort of moral dilemma and ultimately fails. Once everyone has acknowledged that the Cocaine Bear is dangerous, they’re given the opportunity to run, but drug boss Syd (Liotta) insists on retrieving the remainder of the lost cocaine – a duffel bag currently resting in the bear’s cave and protected by its two equally-addicted cubs. Why, you ask? It’s not just for the money; the Colombian drug lords who provided the cocaine want a return on investment, or they’re coming for Syd’s son (Alden Ehrenreich) and grandson. This puts the drug smugglers in a tough situation, and a realistic one at that.
When the final conflict with the bear occurs, however, Syd is framed as a horrible father and person, and the reasoning for his return to the cocaine is neglected altogether. Even Henry (Christian Convery), the young boy who swears a lot and presumably knows very little about the whole drug situation, calls out Syd in a speech reeking of moral righteousness. Henry tells Syd he’s a terrible father as if he has any idea what the stakes are when somebody crosses Colombian cartels. It becomes “good guys and the bear” versus “bad guys,” which is jarring considering the bear is essentially the villain for the whole of the first act and most of the second.
Cocaine Bear then concludes without addressing the concern for the lives of Eddie (Ehrenreich) and his son in any capacity, the whole reason they went back for the cocaine in the first place. Overall, the final act took itself too seriously and tried to quickly wrap everything up in a bow.
While not the most emotionally complex film on the planet, Cocaine Bear was overall a fun watch and an original breath of fresh air from a sea of reboots, live-action remakes and sequels. Its plot wasn’t particularly complex, but I don’t think it had to be. People wanted to watch a coked-out bear maul some people, and that's what Elizabeth Banks gave them.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Cocaine Bear