What to Watch Verdict
Elizabeth Banks’ third feature is a confident, hilarious rampage.
Delivers on the gore and laughs
Mixes in horror beats to great effect
A confident outing from Elizabeth Banks
Opening character setups slow the momentum
From the first trailer released, audiences could only hope that Cocaine Bear lived up to be the movie it was presenting itself to be. Director Elizabeth Banks and the marketing team doubled down on this, with Banks saying in interviews (opens in new tab) that her own mom is going to have to close her eyes in parts and the official website releasing a PacMan-inspired video game where you get to maul 8-bit hikers. Well, now that we've seen it we can say mission accomplished — Cocaine Bear delivers on just about every aspect you could want it to. It's a gory, hilarious rampage that you get hooked on pretty quick.
Inspired by the true story, Cocaine Bear takes place after a drug dealer's plane crash leads to a black bear in a Georgia national park ingesting copious amounts of cocaine and then reeking havoc on just about everyone who gets in its way.
The movie sets its comedic tone right away with the failed drug smuggling operation (and a fun cameo from Matthew Rhys), quoting Wikipedia and showing the cocaine bear's first victims. It's such a great start that the following scenes of setup are honestly the biggest let down of the movie, as we're ready to go but instead have to be introduced to all these different characters and their situations. Some work better than others, like Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Margo Martindale, but thankfully they all get their payoff later.
Part of this comes with the pairings of the different actors of the Cocaine Bear cast. The trio of O'Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and Aaron Holiday (and eventually Whitlock) are able to bring plenty of laughs to segments of the movie sans bear, while Keri Russell's determined mother searching for her daughter with the help of Christian Convery's scared kid gives the story an emotional beat worth rooting for.
Something that was a bit of a surprise was actually how well the movie shifted from making you laugh to filling you with dread as you awaited the cocaine bear to attack its next set of victims. Banks effectively weaves in some classic horror elements to ratchet the tension up. But it was quickly and satisfyingly released with more laughter in absurd and glorious gory ways; the movie definitely earns its rating with some gnarly scenes, but you'll find yourself laughing at them more than covering your eyes.
This effective blend of genres and tones is a credit to Elizabeth Banks and the faith she had in the project and herself to deliver on it. This is Banks' third feature directing effort and affirms that the flop that was her 2019 Charlie's Angels movie was just a blip on the radar. Cocaine Bear has a confidence about it that unquestionably comes from its director. As the push for female directors to helm more mainstream movies continues, Elizabeth Banks has shown with Pitch Perfect 2 and Cocaine Bear that she can make a crowd-pleaser.
And without question that is what Cocaine Bear is. It understood its goal and executed it to near perfection, much like M3GAN earlier this year. With Marvel and massive franchises dominating Hollywood, these are the kind of movies that we need to break the monotony. Perhaps a strong showing at the box office makes Cocaine Bear mainstream, but if not, whenever people do discover the movie it is going to become a favorite for many.
We can't wrap up this review without a couple quick shout outs. First, the VFX teams that brought the cocaine bear to life did a phenomenal job. The bear was lifelike enough that we never questioned it but it was also clearly CGI so that we didn't feel bad about all the different things the movie has it do.
Then there is Ray Liotta. Won't go as far to say that this is going to rank among the most memorable performances for Liotta, but after his shocking passing in 2022, it's a joy to see him on the screen again in what is going to be one of his final roles.
Cocaine Bear is certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But if any part of you is intrigued by the comedic possibilities of a bear on a drug-fueled rampage against a lineup of people that may not always be the brightest bulbs in the box, then it is well worth the watch and something we think you'll enjoy.
Cocaine Bear is playing exclusively in movie theaters.
Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).