If you’ve ever wanted to watch a being without any ability for complex reasoning do amphetamines, go to the stacks during finals week. If you want to watch enemies become friends, a mother heroically search for her captured child, and a story of redemption, go see Cocaine Bear.
On Feb. 24, 2023, “Cocaine Bear” premiered, grossing $8.6 million on its opening day. To put that in perspective, “Avengers: Endgame” made approximately $60 million on its opening day in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic emptied theaters. Obviously, the tactical marketing of the Avengers franchise attracts a greater audience, but if $60 million is the ceiling, “Cocaine Bear” is a footstool.
At first, these statistics worried me. Maybe people didn’t want to see a bear do cocaine. Maybe the movie just didn’t have “the juice.” Maybe the newfangled CGI cinema tricks have worn audiences out.
The bear looked pretty real to me, though. If PETA sees this movie, they’re going to be really mad, because Cocaine Bear is loosely inspired by true events. In 1985, a 175-pound black bear bear ingested cocaine dropped by smugglers in the middle of the Georgian woods. The bear did this for the headline. Maybe the bear was a real actor. We’ll never know, and there’s no way for us to find out.
In the movie, [SPOILER] the bear kills a lot of people. In real life, the bear overdosed before it could. Either way, bears shouldn’t do cocaine.
That shouldn’t stop you from seeing the movie, so why are the numbers so low? What’s stopping people from seeing this bear go crazy? Then I remembered what every review I’ve read since 2020 has said: the pandemic wounded the theater-going industry, shutting down many AMCs and Cinemarks. Netflix releases movies on the streaming platform instead of in a theater. You can rent movies in theaters for $20 from home. The first day in theaters doesn’t matter anymore.
My faith was restored. I watched “Cocaine Bear” with an open mind and open heart, wondering only if the bear would have a heart attack or try to write a screenplay. Would it snort the cocaine or just gum it? Does the bear have a Canada Goose jacket and hate its parents? Would the movie end with the bear’s friends getting it some water and putting it to bed? No. If it did, it would’ve been two hours shorter. The filmmakers had a story to tell.
On the day a bear tries cocaine (in the comfort of his own home), everyone decides to explore the woods. One girl drags a boy into the woods, because she’s mad that her mom has a boyfriend, terrifying her the poor woman who follows them into the woods alone. A drug lord and his son independently venture into the woods to find the cocaine that fell from a plane and started this hullabaloo. A policeman waits for them. Some foolish park rangers do nothing. Everyone goes “Into the Woods,” but nobody sings. If Stephen Sondheim were alive, he would watch this and die again.
Nobody guessed that animals on substances could supply an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, for a whole movie, but director Elizabeth Banks made it happen. The movie didn’t seem realistic; I’ve never seen a bear do drugs, but Winnie the Pooh’s “honey” addiction comes pretty close, and he’s definitely fictional. It felt like an authentic thriller nonetheless, with long shots of gory wounds, jump scares galore and kids swiveling around really slowly in sync when they hear growling behind them. Because the shock of a scary bear attacking people wore off after she slaughtered her first victim, the jump scares began to rely more and more on gore. This was an inhumane bear.
The cast breathed life into the film, especially Keri Russell, the (potentially) bereaved mother hunting her daughter down. The movie should’ve been called “Mama Bear.” Where the story lacked heart, she infused it with familial devotion, elevating “Cocaine Bear” from thriller to heartfelt thriller with her hero’s journey. Isiah Whitlock Jr. warmed the film as the cop hunting the drug lord, but also made fun of the people he arrested
Ultimately, the film told an exciting story, keeping audience members on the edge of their seats, leaving little to the imagination, and letting us know why bears shouldn’t do cocaine.
“Cocaine Bear” is in theaters now.