Movie Review: Have a ball with ‘Cocaine Bear’

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Before I watched “Cocaine Bear,” I had every intention of writing a review with my tongue lodged firmly in my cheek, effusively praising Elizabeth Banks’ directorial vision and making facetious comparisons with the Orson Welles’ 1941 classic “Citizen Kane,” which many critics still consider the best film ever made.

You see, my default setting as a critic, and a human being, is to be a “smart-ass” and ridicule everything through satire.

I mean, how could a film about a bear ingesting prodigious quantities of cocaine and going on violent rampages be anything other than a gimmick?

And, in many ways, “Cocaine Bear” is absolutely an intentional gimmick, but much to my surprise, there is also far more that can be unpacked in its svelte 95-minute running time.

As I was leaving the theater the other night, trying to wrap my head around “Cocaine Bear”[1] I turned to my friend Kim and told her that film felt—to me, at least—like a cinematic Rorschach Test.

Aside from the gimmick, the movie is also genre-bending, a sneaky shape-shifter. The viewer will see in “Cocaine Bear” whatever they choose to focus on.

In one sense, “Cocaine Bear” pays homage to the campy B-horror flicks of the time when the film is set, which is in 1985. Banks certainly includes plenty of hat-tips to films like “Evil Dead,” which director Eli Roth did less effectively in his 2002 film “Cabin Fever”.

In another sense, “Cocaine Bear” is raucously funny. Much like “Evil Dead,” the gore is so gratuitous and over-the-top[2]—severed limbs appear in semi-regular intervals—that the joke seems palm-to-the-head apparent.

Additionally, there are also allusions to the over-produced crime-based adventure/thriller films of the ’80s, i.e. “The Goonies.” Multiple times throughout “Cocaine Bear,” it seemed like my internal irony sensor had been tripped—or, at least, jammed.

Is this sequence intended to be hilarious? Is this satire? Is this slapstick? Just what the hell am I watching, and why am I enjoying it? I found myself confounded.[3]

Plot-wise, however, there is not a lot there. The title pretty much sums up the narrative arc: A black bear does cocaine and kills a bunch of people. The end. And while the film is very loosely based on a true story[4], all of the fictional characters are cardboard cut-outs lacking any depth or complexity, leaving the audience with no earthly reason to invest in any of them.

They’re basically bear food.

And Ray Liotta’s swan song as a St. Louis drug kingpin named Syd isn’t going to rival his role of Henry Hill in “Good Fellas” as his magnum opus, although the parallels between the two characters are enough to feed conspiracy theorists.

Yet “Cocaine Bear” is continuing to do well at the box office, grossing $23.3 in its first weekend, and the sky is the limit for this Casey Jones of black bears. Next, we might see “Cocaine Bear: The Broadway Musical,” Cocaine Bear action figures, or a breakfast cereal named “Cocaine Bear.”[5]

While it’s unlikely Ms. Banks will receive an Oscar nod, and “Cocaine Bear” will likely never be in the conversation with “The Godfather” as the “perfect” film, it is certainly a key-bump of pleasure.


[1] Some of my confusion may have been attributed to extracurricular activities.

[2] I had a few flashbacks to my own adolescence, sifting through old issues of Fangoria magazine with guys I should have never befriended.

[3] It’s entirely possible I was overthinking it; I tend to overthink everything in my life.

[4] You could make the same claim that “The Natural” (the movie starring Robert Redford, not the Bernard Malamud novel) was loosely based on my own life story: I played baseball and hit a home run once in Little League.

[5] I’m fairly certain I’ve already tried this breakfast, multiple times.


About this Author

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Fly Like The Seagull was published by Luchador Press in 2020. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: