Vague Visages’ Cocaine Bear review contains minor spoilers. Elizabeth Banks’ 2023 movie stars Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich and O’Shea Jackson Jr.. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Scored with Melle Mel’s thumping, cautionary 1983 anthem “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It),” the red band trailer for Cocaine Bear promises a lot more fun, a lot more profanity, a lot more outrageousness and a lot more laughs than director Elizabeth Banks delivers in the film itself. All the marketing was on point. The stark and powdery poster directs moviegoers to “Get in Line.” The awesome title, along with the suggestion that the movie is loosely “inspired by true events” — the life and death of an American black bear sometimes called “Pablo Escobear,” currently on taxidermied display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington — will pique enough curiosity for a strong box office take on opening weekend. It’s hard to say whether word of mouth will sustain or stall Cocaine Bear, which features one of Ray Liotta’s last screen performances.
While the historical cocaine bear never killed anyone before suffering a fatal overdose in 1985, Banks’ 2023 movie imagines a broad mashup of the natural threat and slasher genres. Dim-witted victims repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, stumble into the path of the jacked-up omnivore. Some survive while others are dispatched by tooth and claw. Horror hounds will vibe with several of Cocaine Bear’s imaginative kills, which include nasty head wounds, ropes of spilled intestines, scattered limbs and, in what could be the movie’s highlight, a sustained ambulance-stretcher road rash. But despite the variety of practical effects that routinely merit enthusiastic Fangoria profiles, Cocaine Bear lumbers along in lazy circles.
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Banks is a genuine comic talent with years of industry experience. As a performer, she consistently delivers with sharp timing. But little if any of that on-camera charisma translates to Cocaine Bear, which asks viewers to accept the berserk singularity of an ursus with an insatiable lust for snout candy. Rotating among the stories of a sizable ensemble (gotta have enough disposable prey), the movie never builds momentum or raises the stakes. When the climax finally arrives, on the side of a ledge that calls to mind the much funnier bear encounter in Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), viewers will likely be ready to crash as hard as the title critter.
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Jimmy Warden’s Cocaine Bear screenplay doesn’t do Banks any favors. Unquestionably, there was plenty of talent on set, but none of the characters as written connect with one another beyond the most superficial and most tenuous links, even when they are in danger of losing their lives to a bear out of its mind on blow. Even high school students are taught that the best characters operate as highly-motivated agents in relentless pursuit of a goal. And one imagines that not being eviscerated would offer plenty of motivation. But Keri Russell’s nurse, seeking to reunite with her truant daughter, is strangely calm and level-headed for a mama without her cub.
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The gaps between gags in Cocaine Bear made me long for a Buster Keaton two-reeler and the poorly-paced hide-and-seek conjured thoughts of Jaws (1975), which wrote the book on how it’s done. Heck, I’d take most of the sequel installments of Friday the 13th (1980). I wanted to love Cocaine Bear. I was ready to love it. Alas, Cocaine Bear is a brick.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.
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