Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cocaine Bear is its claims to be inspired by “true events.” On September 11, 1985, drug smuggler Andrew Thornton II was trafficking cocaine into the U.S. from Colombia. Mid-flight, he and his partner dumped a load of cocaine into the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, most likely because the plane was carrying too much weight. Thornton jumped from the plane, but was killed when he hit his head on the plane’s tail. His body was found in a driveway in Knoxville, TN.
A couple of months later, a dead black bear was found in the forest, surrounded by open containers of cocaine. Medical examiners estimated it had eaten about 75 pounds of coke at the time of its death, valued at the time at $2 million. And that’s the (very loose) basis for Cocaine Bear from director Elizabeth Banks. By all accounts, the real cocaine bear, aka Pablo Eskobear, didn’t stray from where it found the cocaine. It found it, ate it, and died. A logical series of events, sure, but it needed a bit of a Hollywood tune-up to be ready for the silver screen.
The big change should be pretty obvious. Rather than the bear simply eating the cocaine and dying, it instead goes on a coke-fueled rampage, mauling anything and anyone that gets in between it and its precious white powder. There are several groups unfortunate enough to cross paths with the cocaine bear.
O’Shea Jackson Jr and Alden Ehrenreich appear as Daveed and Eddie, who are tasked by drug dealer Syd (Ray Liotta) to retrieve the drugs from the forest. Of course, where there are drugs, there are police. Isiah Whitlock Jr is a detective who ventures into the forest, hoping to finally bring Syd down. Then we have the few who find themselves intertwined with the larger story in a much more happenstance way.
Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery are best friends Dee Dee and Henry, who skip school to go visit the forest’s waterfall. Keri Russell plays Dee Dee’s mother, Sari, who goes looking for the children. She crosses paths with forest ranger Liz (Margo Martindale), who is accompanying Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who is on hand to inspect the park. If that sounds like a lot of characters for a 95 minute movie ostensibly about a coked-up wild animal, you would be right.
It’s an odd dichotomy, though. This is both one of the movie’s biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. The cast is fantastic and each particular grouping has great chemistry. Some of the movie’s biggest laughs come from their interplay. The script also does a surprisingly effective job of fleshing out each person’s motivations for why they’re doing what they’re doing. But it mostly stops there. We get attempts at character development, but with so many characters and such a short runtime, the movie can only do so much.
I know what you might be thinking. “Who cares about character development in a movie called Cocaine Bear?” And I would be inclined to agree with you. But if you’re going to go there, then go there. And if you want the hook of your movie to be about a bear doing coke, then make it that.
But what Cocaine Bear gives us is an uneven combination of the two. The time spent with the bear is hyper-realized, wacky, and violent. And those moments are often a blast. The movie realizes how absurd it is, and knows when to fully lean into that absurdity. But those moments are too few and far between, as the surprise here is that there’s too much focus on the actual people. And while the cast is fully on board and committed, that’s not what audiences bought a ticket to see.
Your movie is called Cocaine Bear, about a bear. Doing. Cocaine. There’s your movie! That’s all the story you need! Not every character introduced needs a full character arc, especially with such a short runtime. Just focus on the bear and let her cook. Have the humans support the bear, rather than the other way around.
And that’s…about it. There’s not really a whole lot to say here. This is an incredibly simple and straightforward story. And that’s not a bad thing. It can be a great thing when done right. Not every movie has to be Inception. But there’s too much going on here, to the point that even this simple setup becomes convoluted. Cut out one of the storylines, or simply spend less time on each. Do something where more time can be devoted to the antics of a bear high on cocaine. That’s the title of your movie, Cocaine Bear. That’s the movie people came to see. Give them that movie. That movie could have become a genre classic. It’s a shame we’re missing out on that.
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