Review: Cocaine Bear

Year: 2023

Runtime: 95 minutes

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Writer: Jimmy Warden

Actors: Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklyn Prince, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margo Martindale

By Caelyn O’Reilly

As Anne Boleyn probably once said, execution is everything.

Every year, dozens of movies with attention-grabbing animal attack premises flop onto streaming services (I remember the days when they clogged up supermarket DVD sections). “Sharknado 5” (2017), “Dinocroc vs Supergator” (2010), “Lavalantula” (2015), I could very easily go on. Movies with silly titles and fun posters that promise far more than the studio’s budget is capable of delivering. Very few of these movies are even a fun kind of bad, most end up as dull slogs with cheap, stock creature effects. The titles are usually the most creative parts.

There have been some standout creature features in recent years, like “Beast” (2022), “Crawl”(2019) and “The Shallows” (2016), but these are on the more serious horror/action side of things. They don’t go for the campy fun one might want out of the more outlandish – but cheaper – options. The last time I saw a movie that blended the two was 2018’s “The Meg”, an adaptation of a book that is basically Dan Brown’s writing style but with sharks instead of Christianity, which amped up the camp and came together as a delightfully fun time. 

“Cocaine Bear”(2023) would make an excellent double feature with “The Meg”. A film which takes the true story of “a bear ate some cocaine once” and uses it as the premise for a gory rollercoaster ride.

As I pithily alluded to at the start of this review, this film could easily have gone the “Sharknado” route of letting the wacky premise do all the work and not bothering to make a good movie out of it. But “Cocaine Bear” is a perfect execution, worthy of its title.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks, who has developed into quite a safe pair of hands to put a movie in, “Cocaine Bear” commits to being the most complete version of itself: an 80s-drenched adventure flick with clear, well-defined characters centred around a goofy premise that does not go wasted. It avoids many of the traps a movie like this could fall into (more like bear traps am I right? Haha… please hold your applause until the end of the review). Its budget is high enough to pull off the effects without having to hide them or use them as little as possible, it’s gory enough to get you giggling and wincing without going so far as to feel mean-spirited and lose the fun of things, and it doesn’t go the self-aware route of having the characters constantly winking to the camera about how silly this all is. It all threads the needle perfectly.

The casting does the same, what could have easily gone the route of stunt casting and self-indulgent cameos instead puts together a slate of recognisable but perfectly placed B-list stars. Even the film’s closest move towards stunt casting, with its human antagonist Syd – played by the late Ray Liotta – isn’t treated like a walking talking reference (this isn’t “Bee Movie”(2007), thank God). He, like his co-stars, is used superbly and fits the role like a custom-made glove. Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr. all commit to their roles perfectly. Though I do want to draw attention to Margo Martindale’s impeccably grumpy performance as the Park Ranger and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s similarly tired-of-this-shit detective. But more than even them, one man who deserves eternal praise for his work on this film is the Cocaine Bear himself, motion capture performer Allan Henry. I cannot wait to see more behind-the-scenes material of his work here.

The action and comedy are blended together into a cohesive and delicious milkshake, but full of blood and cocaine… this metaphor has gotten away from me a bit. Regardless, the film had me grinning like a complete idiot throughout. It joins the “Paddington” series in getting some excellent actors to say the word “bear” in very funny ways.

Though the secret sauce that really pulls the film together, and elevates it from fun junk food to a bounteous feast (I’m making a lot of food metaphors, maybe I should get lunch) is well away from the cameras. The combo meal (yup, I’m gonna stop and get lunch) of the excellent CGI of New Zealand VFX house Wētā and the scrumptious original score from Mark Mothersbaugh.

Much digital ink has been spilled by the film obsessive among us in recent years about the noticeable drop in the quality of CG work in some of the biggest blockbuster releases, particularly superhero media. I believe, as many both inside and outside the industry have said, this is largely due to studios over-reliance on the form, pumping out effects extravaganzas filmed almost entirely on green screens in both film and television several times a year, leaving VFX houses to build the bulk of the visuals on increasingly horrifying time limits and lowered budgets for each individual release.

Now obviously, I cannot claim to know the working conditions of the staff at Wētā on this or any other film, but seeing this just days after the upsettingly ugly “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”, I can say confidently that there is a wild difference in approach here. The titular drug-fuelled fluffy tank at this movie’s centre just looks good, really, really good. If you can’t bring yourself to care about the issue of VFX artists being overworked purely on a human basis (first, wow, work on yourself) then at least realise that if studios are going to flood your life with huge expensive media franchises, then they should at the very least look as good as this damn bear.

To me, Mark Mothersbaugh is still a name associated most, not with the band Devo, but with his wholly singular and unforgettable work on “Rugrats”. That theme is still burned into my mind after all these years. And he has remained a wonderful presence in the soundscapes of film and television since, particularly in his work in animation such as “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (2009), “The LEGO Movie” (2014), and the criminally underrated “The Mitchells vs The Machines” (2021). His soundtrack for “Cocaine Bear” is superb, amplifying every performance, every bit of aesthetic, every moment of action. A synth-studded cross of Kaiju horror and the best Spielberg adventure movie never made. It is a crime worthy of trial at The Hague that this man has never been nominated for an Oscar. You’d better believe that come next awards season I will be taking a page from “To Leslie”’s book and running a For Your Consideration campaign for “Cocaine Bear”. Just you wait.

“Cocaine Bear” (I love typing that) is a throwback movie like “Shovel Knight” is a throwback game. It doesn’t accurately replicate the style of the past, warts and technical limitations and all. It’s deliberately rose-tinted, the kind of work that we wish could have been made. A glorious and fully realised manifestation of the thought “fuck it, let’s do something fun”. Grab a rolled up dollar bill and dive right in, you won’t be disappointed by this trip.


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