Arts and Entertainment

Cocaine Bear: It’s Exactly What It Sounds Like

A review of Cocaine Bear, based on the true story.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Celeste Hoo

Real-life drug smuggler Andrew Thornton deliberately dropped 75 pounds of cocaine over the Tennessee wilderness in 1985 while transporting the shipment into the United States by plane. Three months later, authorities in Georgia found the body of the black bear that had eaten almost all of the cocaine. This is the basic premise of Cocaine Bear, though the fictional film is extremely dramatized and crammed with gory deaths that never actually happened. 

The film begins in the same way as the true story: Thornton flings over $2 million worth of packaged cocaine into the wilderness before falling to his death when his parachute fails. From this point on, the plot diverges entirely into pure fiction, and chaos ensues. Viewers are never actually shown the bear’s discovery and ingestion of the cocaine—only the terrifying effects it has on the bear’s psyche immediately afterwards. The first bear-related death is that of a young hiker who unknowingly stumbles into the bear’s vicinity in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest and is brutally mauled. This scene, complete with bloody limb stumps flying into the air, illustrates the extravagant, campy violence that is constant throughout the movie. The main conflict is single mother Sari’s (Keri Russell) mission to rescue her pre-teen daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who was separated from her friend after they ventured into the forest alone and were attacked by the bear. Simultaneously, Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who finds Thornton’s body, investigates his connections to fictional drug lord Sid White (Ray Liotta). The latter serves as the primary (human) antagonist through his search to recover the cocaine at all costs. Meanwhile, the addicted bear roams the forest, searching for more cocaine and attacking anyone in sight; the film introduces a plethora of characters who are subsequently killed off in rapid succession.

The cast features several talented actors, including the late Ray Liotta as the caricatured ‘80s drug lord Sid White and esteemed character actress Margo Martindale as a disgruntled park ranger. Unfortunately, the characters are inhibited by poor scriptwriting, which fails to afford them the depth and dialogue needed to tell a compelling story. Sari and Dee Dee’s mother-daughter relationship, a focal point of the film, lacks nuance and receives limited screen time. Russell attempts to depict Sari’s struggle to reunite with her daughter with emotional authenticity, but Dee Dee herself is off-screen for almost the entire film, ensuring that their eventual heartfelt reconciliation is too little, too late. Ultimately, the star-studded cast struggles to revive the stilted and flat dialogue in between scenes involving unequivocally the best character—the bear. The bear itself functions as a villainous agent of destruction for the majority of the film before being lent a slightly sympathetic role when Sid White is revealed to be the true antagonist. This transition fits well in the plot because viewers are encouraged to anticipate and look forward to the bear’s appearances. The revelation that the bear is, in fact, a mother compounds the themes of parenthood and family that Cocaine Bear relies on for a sense of continuity.

Though the characters spend the vast majority of their time in the lush, green forest, the film is still undeniably ‘80s; the iconic This Is Your Brain on Drugs commercial, a symbol of the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs policies, makes an appearance just a few minutes in, and Sari’s entire journey through the wilderness is performed in a bright pink jumpsuit. The self-exalting manner in which blood and carnage are embraced also pays homage to the era of ‘80s slasher films during the real Cocaine Bear’s lifetime. Though the thick vegetation effectively mimics that of forests in Georgia, Cocaine Bear was actually filmed in Wicklow, Ireland, a popular spot for filmmakers due to its picturesque scenery. Occasional shots of impressive views reinforce the man-versus-nature theme that permeates the plot, and the dense foliage communicates the claustrophobic sense that some characters will never make it out alive. 

The implausible, deliberately-crude gore of Cocaine Bear quickly establishes a tone of comedy and ridiculousness that eliminates the possibility of a serious horror film intended to spark genuine fear. A chase scene midway through involving the park ranger and two incidental paramedics highlights this absurdity: the bear gains on their escaping ambulance, launches itself through the air, and successfully jumps into the back of the vehicle. The ranger is propelled from the stretcher into the road, one paramedic is mauled by the bear, and the other is killed after crashing the ambulance into a tree. By this point, the film becomes a drug-induced fantasy that revels in its own frivolity. The frequent moments of high-suspense bear encounters, though briefly anxiety-inducing, are never terrifying. Instead, Cocaine Bear is self-aware and relies on the acknowledged nonsense of its premise as the central joke.

As expected, the bear serves as the single most vital and interesting element of the film. However, one of the film’s biggest shortcomings is the thin line that its CGI straddles between—utterly unconvincing and just believable enough. In certain scenes, this balance is nonexistent, especially in moments that demand realistic movement, such as when the bear scales a tree or chases after its victims. Here, the bear appears strangely un-bear-like, operating with a gravity-defying ease of motion that makes it seem more like a humongous, man-eating squirrel. Weta VFX, the company responsible for creating the bear, was reportedly inspired by the unique facial structure and expression of sun bears to make the Cocaine Bear look like it had a drug habit.

Though the film is not particularly long, the crammed list of characters mandates a longer running time than necessary, burderning the flimsy plot with insignificant scenes and uncompelling interactions. Cocaine Bear’s biggest problem is that it has exactly one concept it wishes to communicate: a bear eats cocaine and goes on a murderous rampage. Beyond that, there is not much substance to the film. But with an innovatively explicit death every few minutes, it is obvious that perfectly-refined plotlines and complex characters are not the movie’s selling point. Instead, Cocaine Bear is an ideal film for teenage audiences, and not once does it operate under the pretense of being anything other than fun, gory nonsense.