In 1985, in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, a bear came upon a trove of cocaine which had been dumped from a plane by trafficker Andrew Thornton. The bear then consumed either some or all of the drug and overdosed, depending on which version of the story you prefer. In 2023, in the newly released movie “Cocaine Bear,” written by Jimmy Warden and directed by Elizabeth Banks, the story takes a decidedly different turn, one in which the bear develops a strong affinity for the drug and goes on a murderous rampage.
The result is a shining example of the type of content Hollywood should be producing.
It’s a gory, rollicking romp through several stories which become intertwined thanks to the cocaine bear. There’s Daveed, played by Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr., who’s been charged by kingpin Syd, portrayed by Ray Liotta in one of his final roles, with recovering the drug scattered across the forest in duffle bags. Accompanying Daveed is Eddie, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who is trying to leave the family business and is wrecked with grief over his wife losing her battle with cancer. Along the way, they pick up a hoodlum. Their story is a blood-soaked buddy comedy.
Then there are the kids, Dee Dee and Henry, who skip school so Dee Dee can go to a hidden waterfall in order to paint it during mid-day, when the lighting is perfect. Theirs is a coming-of-age story, with Dee Dee’s mother Sari, played by Keri Russell, attempting to rescue the kids once it becomes clear that there’s a murderous bear on the loose in the forest where the kids are.
Finally, there’s Bob (played by Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), the cop from Missouri, where Syd and his gang were based, who heads to Georgia to try to track down the gang members. His is a story of coming to love a froufrou purse dog and the dangers of getting on top of a gazebo without first thinking of a plan to get back down and also about getting shot. His story is more in support of the above two, as well as the stories of a park ranger, the hippie conservationists she hopes to woo, some hooligans, and two EMTs.
All of those people get killed, though the cocaine bear doesn’t directly kill and dismember all of them, just most of them. Most of the principal characters survive, but not before they come together to learn lessons about parenting, friendship, teamwork, and fighting a cocaine-addled bear.
Heads are removed. Limbs torn off. Blood splashing hither and thither. Body parts bouncing hither and thither. There are jokes, such as when the hooligan teaches Eddie how he can better talk to his own son. There are tender moments, also exemplified by the hooligan teaching Eddie how to better communicate with his son.
What there aren’t are any lectures. There are no teachable moments, unless you count the one that comes at the beginning of the film and is credited to Wikipedia, that in a normal encounter with a black bear, the smart play is to fight back. It’s 95 minutes of insanity that serves no purpose other than to entertain.
In a just world, those 95 minutes of blood-soaked carnage would be guaranteed to earn multiple Oscars, from best screenplay to best director to best film. Alas, the lack of teachable moments probably means that won’t happen, but it matters not. For what matters is that in 2023, we have a movie that hearkens back to earlier times, back when Hollywood sought not to make us better people, but to distract us for a while, to invite us to imagine possibilities like “what if a bear got hooked on cocaine?”
Leaving the theater, I looked at my 15-year-old daughter, whom I naturally took with me as I’m a responsible parent, and said, “Well, that was incredible.” She nodded and added, “I can’t think of one thing I would change about that movie.”
Hollywood, take note of our two thumbs up, even if we are not yet the new Siskel and Ebert. As we saw with “Maverick,” what the world needs now isn’t moralizing. What we need are claws, comedy, and drug-addled apex predators rampaging across the screen.