‘Cocaine Bear’ Is Like A Novelty T-Shirt You Have To Wear Every Day For A Year

When a friend texted to ask how Cocaine Bear was, I responded “there are child actors doing Southern accents in it,” which felt like all the explanation that was necessary. You can stop reading here if you like.

As evidenced by its popularity as a meme, “cocaine bear” is a funny idea for a movie. It’s also already a punchline, and a funny idea for a movie works better when it’s a setup. When it’s already a punchline, there isn’t much left to do except to tediously construct a scenario we’ve already gotten what we want out of. In this case I think I would’ve rather just given them the $12 as a tip for making a funny poster rather than sitting through 86 minutes of extraneous action and four minutes of people saying “cocaine bear.” (One thought for improving Cocaine Bear: make the joke everyone standing around awkwardly waiting for someone to say “cocaine bear,” like Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse bit).

Cocaine Bear is, in case you haven’t Googled it by now, based on the true story of the 1985 cocaine smuggling flight that killed a former narcotics officer-turned-drug smuggler named Andrew C. Thornton II. He bailed out of an overloaded Cessna along with 40 packages of jettisoned cocaine and was found splooshed against the ground after his chute didn’t open. This part of the story opens the movie, with Matthew Rhys playing a Wile E. Coyote version of Thornton we never see after the first scene. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation later found a black bear corpse in the woods, whose stomach was reportedly filled with cocaine. Someone taxidermied that bear and it became a tourist attraction.

Thornton’s story actually sounds like an interesting one, a rich kid turned Army soldier turned cop turned drug smuggler who died during a daredevil cocaine stunt gone wrong. I could see the Death Of Dick Long guys making a great movie out of that. The brilliance of director Daniel Scheinert and writer Billy Chew in that movie was to take a wacky news story and try to imagine every character in it as a real person. That’s basically the opposite of what director Elizabeth Banks and writer Jimmy Warden do with Cocaine Bear.

Cocaine Bear is basically a horror movie about the bear who ate the cocaine, which is a slightly curious choice to begin with seeing as how the real bear was just minding his own bear business when some cocaine literally fell out of the sky and killed it. In the movie though, the black bear eats the cocaine and kills people, first some Scandinavian hikers played by the Tormund Giantsbane guy from Game of Thrones and his fiancee, played by Hannah Hoekstra. I guess it’s supposed to be funny because they were in love?

Later we meet two kids, a tween boy and girl, who ditch school to hike to a waterfall — they of the aforementioned child actors doing southern accents. Now, if you’re adapting a true story that requires no child actors, adding an element that requires child actors has to be one of the greatest unforced errors of all time, but maybe that’s just me. Keri Russell plays the mother of the girl tween struggling to get her daughter back after she finds out the bear “took” her. That’s something cocaine bears do, I guess, they kidnap young girls. I dunno, man.

Other characters include the cop investigating the dead smuggler (the always great Isiah Whitlock, aka Clay Davis from The Wire), a horny park ranger (Margo Martindale), some whacky paramedics, including Scott Seiss (who’s really funny on Twitter) some teen delinquents who hang out in the national park, and the guys from the drug gang trying to get their coke back — which include angry bad guy Ray Liotta (in his last film role) O’Shea Jackson Jr. (aka Ice Cube Jr.) as the straight man, of sorts, and Alden Ehrenreich as Liotta’s character’s son, distraught from just having lost his fiancee to cancer. I guess it’s supposed to be funny because they were in love?

None of these characters really have an arc, though they occasionally get to shoot at each other and yell at, and yell about, a bear. Even the bear is just a killer bear that could’ve come from any number of killer bear movies. Why this one needs “cocaine” as a motive isn’t clear. Does cocaine even make people kill? I guess it can, though first it makes them wired and annoying. Cocaine Bear isn’t really about a bear on cocaine, it’s mostly sort of a pre-fab killer animal B-movie with “cocaine” slapped on the title (which, admittedly, is a good title). It’s a horror movie reconfigured as a comedy, and I suppose the comedy is that no one is taking the horror very seriously.

“Cocaine: It makes bears KILL” feels like a parody of an 80s D.A.R.E. commercial, and Cocaine Bear might have worked if it had embraced this, functioning as a satire of the over-the-top anti-drug propaganda fed to the young minds of my generation. There are actually a few of those ads in Cocaine Bear (the “this is your brain on drugs” one with the egg in the frying pan) suggesting that the filmmakers maybe knew this, or wanted this to be the thrust of Cocaine Bear, but either couldn’t follow up on it or couldn’t sell it to the financiers. I don’t know, I wasn’t in the room.

A movie about a guy having to write a movie called “Cocaine Bear” where the only directive is “and the bear has to kill people” might actually be kind of good. That story has pathos in it. This one is mostly just a poster in search of a story.

‘Cocaine Bear’ is in theaters everywhere now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.