Arts and Culture Film

Cocaine Bear: Absurdly Underwhelming

Spoiler Warning!

Cocaine Bear is a movie that demands not to be taken seriously. The idea of a drug fueled bear berserking its way through Georgia while doing line after line of cocaine clearly has no basis on reality… right? Well, yes and no. The 175 pound bear this movie is based on did ingest cocaine that was dropped out of a drug smugglers plane, but in reality it died from an overdose after about five minutes and was not seen or attacked by anyone. A paragraph long article about it surfaced in the New York Times in 1980, but this account did not mention any attacks or deaths whatsoever. So why was this movie made? Probably because its title and marketing was absurd enough to get people interested in seeing yet another B horror movie. 

The main promotional poster for Cocaine Bear

And I was one of those people. Walking into the theater I had very few expectations, except that I hoped the movie would live up to the absurdity of its subject matter. I was disappointed. Cocaine Bear is a movie with some high points, but it is ultimately a meandering slasher that somehow takes itself far too seriously to be about a bear on cocaine. 

You’d think the comedic potential of a bear snorting lines like its peak disco season in the 1970s would be limitless, but the story instead chooses to focus on the more mundane lives of the characters fated to die at the paws of the titular drug user. In a movie marketed around satire and absurdity, the plot itself is disappointingly grounded. We see a mother attempt to find her child after it is taken by the bear with about as much urgency as a stopped clock, we see the reluctant heir of a drug empire become unlikely friends with one of his fathers goons, but only rarely do we actually see the bear itself. The B plot of the drug smugglers who lost track of the cocaine never truly manages to build suspense and ultimately became a disappointing sendoff for Ray Liotta as his last on screen performance. A few action fight scenes are thrown in to make it interesting, but end up feeling out of place in a movie that is supposed to be all about the bear. 

Still from Cocaine Bear, depicting Syd (played by Ray Liotta) and his son Eddie (played by Alden Ehrenreich).

And what we do see of the bear is a mixed bag. One scene in particular involving an ambulance chase and a disgruntled park ranger stands out and adequately delivers some of the over the top absurdity I expected from this movie, but scenes like this are few and far between. Many of the potentially interesting confrontations are dulled by the characters improbable actions and the lackluster sightings of the bear itself.

The bear seems to be entirely CGI, so there are many instances where it is conveniently hidden or obscured, likely in an attempt to save money. This can be distracting when the entire plot is about a character whose screen time is directly limited by the movie’s budget. Other monster-type movies like Godzilla or King Kong also suffer from this problem, especially when there is a clear audience expectation to focus on the big bad, but the plot is instead forced to dwell on the underwritten human characters. There are a few stand out character moments, like the unexpected juvenile mishaps that ensue when two kids stumble upon a massive duffel bag of cocaine, but most of the characters only exist to make a brief impression and then be killed off.

The movie culminates in a final confrontation with the bear, the smugglers, and the mother protecting her children, as each tries to outmaneuver the bear and get out alive. As I was watching I started to think this movie would be a little bit more focused if the bear itself became the main obstacle for each group, because as the film progresses the bear becomes more like a random event that shows up, kills a character or two, and disappears only to be brought back whenever the plot gets dull. 

Seeing the survivors of different bear attacks band together and make a last stand against the titular force of nature would be a much more exciting take on the whole cocaine bear story in my opinion. Instead, the true villain of the story becomes Ray Liotta’s drug lord character when in the third act he decides to forgo all reason and do anything to recover the missing cocaine, including endangering children, almost killing his own son, and eventually dying to the bear. Villains that start out with reason and clear thinking, only to become mindless crazed murderers are a big pet peeve of mine, and I was surprised that the mindless antagonist of this movie ended up being one of the humans. 

Overall Cocaine Bear does offer some entertaining B movie fun, but if you’re looking for something more than the occasional action scene or bear eating cocaine gag then I would suggest finding something with a little more substance. Cocaine Bear under delivers on the absurdity and fails to give its plot any real weight, which is a shame because we rarely see movies as unconventional and unexpected as this one.