From its title, to its premise, to all the marketing for Cocaine Bear, it felt safe to assume that even though it was coming from a major studio, this was going to be some fairly wild shit. As it turns out, those expectations of an off the rails movie were wrong. Despite its eponymous beast's penchant for mauling, Cocaine Bear is a too-slick effort that's dangerously close to being cuddly.
There's one sequence about halfway in, when a pair of ambulance workers get involved in the bear's rampage, that offers the hope that, ok, now things are kicking into that higher gear we've been waiting for, but once that sequence is over, things go right back to being very safe n' straight laced. Before they even started filming Cocaine Bear, someone should have realized that the script and the title didn't match. Yes, there is a cocaine bear so technically the title fits but when you call a movie Cocaine Bear and you know that's what going to compel everyone to buy a ticket, you've got to make damn sure you deliver on that title.
Here's the thing: going into Cocaine Bear, I did not want to have to follow multiple tedious storylines. First up, you've got single mom Sari (Keri Russell) who discovers that her young daughter DeeDee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school in order to venture to a nearby waterfall with a friend so Sari has to go looking for her. You also have a park ranger (Margo Martindale) whose planned day in the outdoors with her crush (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is interrupted by Sari's need for help. Then you also have Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who's been sent to the area by his boss, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta), to recover the lost duffel bags of coke that are laying unattended across the Georgia woods. Accompanying Daveed is Syd's son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who is still morose over the recent death of his wife due to cancer.
Once they arrive at the grounds of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Daveed and Eddie run into a trio of trouble making delinquents who have come across the coke and they rope one of them into taking them to where they've stashed one of the bags. Oh, and there's also another plot thread about a cop named Bob (Isiash Whitlock Jr.) who has trekked out to the area hoping to nail Syd and, by the way, Bob has a newly adopted dog he left behind in the care of one of his fellow officers and that's something that we're supposed to care about. After reading all this, do you see what the problem with Cocaine Bear is? Definitely after writing it, I feel a renewed sense of exasperation at this movie. I mean, come on, where's the fucking Cocaine Bear in all of this?
Once they settled on the title of Cocaine Bear, the main mission of this movie should have been to put that fucking thing in as much of the movie as they could. The trim 95 minute running time of Cocaine Bear should have made for a lean, fast moving Animal Attack! movie along the lines of 2019's Crawl but instead those 95 minutes are mostly squandered on meandering storylines that serve to make the movie feel about a half hour longer than it actually is. Worst of all, the main storyline of Sari searching for DeeDee doesn't even involve the bear for most of the time. There's an encounter with the bear that Sari survives early on but then it moves on and Sari and DeeDee's buddy Henry (Christian Convery) then proceed to go looking for DeeDee and every time we return to check in on their progress, we know that they're not in any danger whatsoever. In this movie, every character should be in constant danger of being mauled. Otherwise, why the hell am I watching?
If there's such a thing as a family friendly movie about a coked up bear, this is it. As bloody as it occasionally gets, Cocaine Bear never stops feeling cozy and conventional. This is a movie where even the drug dudes and forest wandering hooligans are basically nice, non-malicious people (save for Syd, who is given a legitimate aura of danger by Ray Liotta). I mean, Banks and co. can't even bring themselves to demonize the Cocaine Bear. Sure, it's not the bear's fault someone dropped a bunch of coke from a plane into its forest so you can't say the bear is bad but at the same time, it's a staple of the man vs. animal subgenre that the animal must be destroyed. You have to root for its ultimate annihilation. The bear in 1975's Grizzly wasn't a bad bear. It wasn't evil. But yet you didn't want to see 18 feet of towering fury just be allowed to peacefully wander back into the woods at the end. That would be unsatisfying. What you want is to see it exploded into chunks of blood and fur by a fucking bazooka. You don't want Jaws to just swim away at the end of the movie, you want Roy Scheider to fire off that shot at the air tank in Jaws' mouth and obliterate it. Bottom line: you want gratification. You want to see an animal go on a killing spree, murder many people, and then be spectacularly destroyed. The makers of Cocaine Bear did not get that memo.
While there's something to be said for subverting expectations and going against the grain, I don't think that applies here. Cocaine Bear needed to straight up bring the exploitation movies goods and it doesn't quite do that. Yeah, I'll still take a squeaky clean coked up bear movie over no coked up bear movie but at the same time, I feel I must register my disappointment. Even with its PG-13 rating, M3GAN delivered more effectively as an exploitation movie than the R-rated Cocaine Bear does so I think it's worth noting that it falls short.
Cocaine Bear has got some decent splatter but the go for the throat attitude isn't there. It'll still do well thanks to Universal's killer marketing campaign but my hope is that whatever gonzo movies that might get made in response to its success will be inspired to push the envelope and show some real B-movie gusto. Don't promise people a Cocaine Bear only to hand them a Teddy Bear instead.