Cocaine Bear Review: Elizabeth Banks Offers A Pleasant Enough B-Movie High

The Pitch: In 1985, an ex-narcotics officer dumped over 800 pounds of cocaine over a Georgia national park before bailing out of his plane and dying before his chute could save him. While the authorities never found the coke, someone — or something else — did: a 175-pound black bear who did about 40 containers of it at once and died of an overdose shortly thereafter.

At first, its eventual fate was merely that it would be found, stuffed, and displayed in a Kentucky mall after getting the ignominious nickname “Pablo Escobear.” But pop culture tall tales like these rarely die easy, which is how producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (and director Elizabeth Banks) turned the meme-ready true story into a balls-to-the-wall horror comedy with all the lurid details turned up to 11. In the hands of screenwriter Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), ol’ Pablo (though she’s never called that in the film) turns into a bloodthirsty menace, ready to maul and dismember anyone who gets between her and her precious Vitamin C.

Over the course of one particularly chaotic day in the Georgia woods, a rogue’s gallery of unsuspecting victims will stumble upon the bear and scramble to survive: a single mom (Keri Russell) looking for her missing daughter (The Florida Project‘s Brooklynn Prince); a pair of low-level drug dealers (Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) tasked with recovering the coke for Ehrenreich’s kingpin dad (Ray Liotta, in his final role); a crotchety park ranger (Margo Martindale) and the dweeby forest preserver (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) she wants to woo; and a detective (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) on the hunt for the drug dealers responsible.

Cocaine Bear (Universal)

Just Say “ROAR”: It’s hard to separate Cocaine Bear from its marketing campaign, one that clearly relishes the jaw-dropping absurdity of its concept: The film, after all, does exactly what it says on the tin, no more, no less. Banks, building off her effortless comic sensibilities both as an actor and in previous directorial efforts like Pitch Perfect 2 and the Charlie’s Angels reboot, has a ball flitting between a good many storylines and working with actors who are clearly having a grand old time bouncing off each other.

The clear winners here are Ehrenreich and Jackson, who exude incredible buddy-movie vibes as an emotionally-fragile failson of Liotta’s drug kingpin and the tough-guy bestie responsible for getting the former back on his feet. But Respected Character Actor Margo Martindale has a ball too, especially in a tense ambulance chase (alongside TikTok Customer Service Guy Scott Seiss, clearly matching the film’s wacky energy) that sees everyone making the exact wrong decision when a black bear is chasing you.

From the start, Banks makes plenty of hay from the true story’s ’80s trappings, from cheeky nods to the portentous drug PSAs of the day (remember when Pee-Wee Herman told you crack wasn’t “glamorous, or cool, or kid’s stuff”?) to a sprightly synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh layered with Devo charm. It’s hardly Stranger Things, but those period details inject quite a bit of charm into the madcap antics of our misfit group of survivors.

Cocaine Bear (Universal)