Contrary to popular belief, a black bear is far from the most terrifying animal one can encounter in a forest—there are rattlesnakes, copperheads, and deer ticks spreading Lyme Disease wide across Appalachia. Not to mention humans: In fact, black bears are more likely to become aggressive because of your dog than you; as a hiker, I’ve come across a few black bears during my years in the woods, but I’ve entered clearings that only reek of bear smell because the actual bears sensed me coming and bolted. Truth would make for a terribly boring movie, however, and the premise behind Cocaine Bear—a bear eats cocaine, hijinks ensue—is so good that it writes itself. Unfortunately, films don’t write themselves, and that’s the problem.
The movie is loosely inspired by the story of a real bear that ate real cocaine, tossed from a narco-plane over Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, and promptly died after overdosing. True to its name, the film fully commits to keeping its protagonist high as a violent kite alongside a cast of characters that includes a determined single mom (Keri Russell) and her rebellious daughter (Brooklynn Prince), a drug trafficker responsible for the missing cocaine (the late, great Ray Liotta), his son tasked with locating it (Alden Ehrenreich) and his son’s friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a trafficker-pursuing detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), his fellow officer (Ayoola Smart), a seasoned park ranger (the ever-wonderful Margo Martindale), and her wildlife-loving crush (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and a trio of unruly teens. It’s a lot to fit into the film’s 95-minute runtime, which means someone has to take the narrative execution seriously even in a film that doesn’t take itself seriously, at least if it had hoped to live up to the hype built by its viral trailer, one that winks at a movie smart enough to be in on both the joke of itself and its ursine CGI star.
But if its rampant 1980s easter eggs are any indication, from anti-drug PSAs to power ballad needle drops, then perhaps Cocaine Bear’s goal isn’t to be a creative horror-comedy with a clever apex predator, like Deep Blue Sea. Maybe it’s a different kind of throwback, a slasher flick with a claw-wielding murderer who might as well be wearing a hockey mask. And while forests are the go-to fertile grounds of scary stories—think: Friday the 13th or Cabin in the Woods—here the ultimate threat isn’t necessarily in the active pursuit of the Dark/Unknown Other™, but the repeated ineptitude of one’s peers. Some of them will shoot you, sure, but some of them will also run and force you to run with them, despite your knowing it will trigger the bear’s predator response. Some, given the chance to cut their losses, insist you press on and pursue the bear. (Hell, it would seem, is other hikers.)
When a kid (played by Christian Convery) who’s clambered up a tree for safety tells a man (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who’s done the same nearby that they’re safe because “bears can’t climb trees,” the man shouts back, “Of course they can!” We learn that this character is actually a self-proclaimed wildlife specialist, which suggests that some of the film’s humor and empathy might lie in how fear can drive one to choose a path they know won’t save them. Unfortunately, Cocaine Bear spends far more time struggling to get us invested in a bloated series of subplots for a parade of flat characters. If a group of drug smugglers led by someone as charismatic as Ray Liotta can’t get me to care about retrieving a duffel bag full of cocaine, then something has gone terribly wrong. (Ultimately, there is no one I feel worse for—in a film where we encounter a severed leg, another severed leg, a severed head, two severed fingers, and a nearly severed wrist, attached only barely to a living person only a few breaths longer—than O’Shea Jackson Jr’s prized fit, which suffers the indignity of gum underfoot and blood from both stab and bullet wounds.) It isn’t that the film doesn’t try, but rather that it alternates between a directionless slapstick slasher and a mediocre thriller without a single grounding presence.
Cocaine Bear is less a film of who’s next and how “next” will happen to them than one about what the whimsical path of bear on blow. It could be falling asleep on a character. It could be chasing a butterfly. It could be dismembering some poor European tourist. Could be dancing in a plume of coke, could be maiming, or it could be making snow angels on the forest floor after inhaling a brick of powder in one gulp. But the bear is no clear villain; there is no final girl. Alas, constant absurdity does not mean absurdity that builds toward something, and what we have is a film that hinders itself by leaning on aimless absurdity as the audience grows steadily desensitized to its violence. The bear is the draw, and the bear’s is all we’re getting.