March 23, 2023

“Cocaine Bear” Fails to Lampoon the War on Drugs

By: Justin Tucker

Black comedy Cocaine Bear, as with Snakes on a Plane and Hot Tub Time Machine, is a film with a title that succinctly encapsulates its ridiculous premise. Set in 1985 and inspired by “true” events, it tells the story of a Georgia bear that goes on a deadly rampage after ingesting copious amounts of Colombian blow. The cocaine belonged to dope smuggler Andy Thornton, who threw it out of his plane over Blood Mountain in the Georgian Appalachians. The contraband becomes lost when he doesn’t survive his skydiving attempt to retrieve it. Thornton’s death complicates things for St. Louis dealer Sydney White (Ray Liotta), who sends Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and his estranged son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) to Georgia to recover the drugs. The bear’s desire for more yayo has her crossing paths with other visitors to Blood Mountain, including a gang of redneck youths, children playing hooky, and forest service employees. Knoxville cop Bob (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) sees this as an opportunity to investigate and make a bust.

Cocaine Bear is a gimmick that doesn’t take itself seriously and offers up many laughs. There’s a bear and it’s yacked out of its mind. You know what you’re getting into and the film gives what you would expect. Director Elizabeth Banks, who last helmed the 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, succeeds in dropping the audience into the 1980s, from its music to the production design. The film kicks off with Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” blaring and uses Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love” to comedic effect, with its “Together flying high / Flying high up on the wings of love” perhaps having a peculiar meaning. The score by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbauh is heavy on synth and metal guitars, complimenting the well-curated diegetic bangers. The sets, props, and costumes also make it feel more authentic. Items such as vintage Stag Beer signage, maroon Missouri license plates, and brights suits with lapels over the jacket further transport the audience to the Decade of Greed.

Cocaine Bear is one of the last films completed by the legendary Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) before he departed for the Great Movie Palace in the Sky. Liotta leans into type as Syd White, a tough-guy grandfather who has to straighten out the mess or else answer to other tough guys expecting drugs. The film is dedicated to his memory. The hilarious Margo Martindale (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) steals the show as Ranger Liz, whose gun-handling skills are put to the test when confronted by the fiending bear. This may prove to be the character actor’s biggest role.

The movie, as one may figure, is by no means a masterpiece nor is it intended as such. It suffers from a bit of tonal inconsistency. Its goofy, gritty, and gory blend is unevenly mixed. The bear is rendered with subpar CGI that will age terribly and some may wonder how far along movie puppetry could have come had CGI not become the standard. Keri Russell, one of her generation’s most dependable professionals, is underutilized in her role as Sari, the mother of one of the truant children. She’s not given much to work with but her character, a nurse, reminds us solemnly that cocaine is dangerous.

Cocaine Bear also misses a big opportunity to comment on the absurdity and failure of drug prohibition policy since the peak of “Just Say No.” In fact, the morality of Cocaine Bear is almost right out of the Eighties. The cops are the good guy out to bust the drug-dealing bad guys. Even our cop protagonist, Bob, makes a reference to the Nixon Administration’s ramping up the War on Drugs. America’s failed prohibition of recreational drugs has led to a loss of liberty, needlessly destroyed the lives of countless nonviolent individuals, and wasted trillions of tax dollars, all while having a negligible effect on addiction. As Sari recommends, cocaine is not good for you. Because it is unhealthy and extremely addictive, many people would just not partake and do not need government coercion to convince them otherwise. But because the government makes cocaine illegal, Sari has to worry about a doped-out bear and armed smugglers coming near her kid.