‘Cocaine Bear’ a crash of poor filmmaking

It’s always a bit of a tell-tale when promotional imagery is much more distinctive than anything in the actual movie. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

3/10 Cocaine Bear is the most important film of 2023, perhaps the most important of the past five years because it’s such a perfect indication of not only how filmmaking practices have stagnated and toxified, but how it affects the final product. It should be a permanent display in a museum of lazy filmmaking from this era.

The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Northwest Georgia, Sept. 11, 1985- former Lexington police officer-turned drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) gets high on his own supply on a low-altitude flight from Columbia to St. Louis and starts dropping gym bags full of cocaine several hours early over Georgia. On Dec. 23, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation discovered a dead black bear surrounded by opened, scattered packages of cocaine. Affectionately known as Cokey the Bear or Pablo Eskobear, her taxidermied body remains on permanent display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, where she is certified to officiate weddings.

The 2023 film Cocaine Bear imagines that she didn’t immediately overdose and die and instead goes on a bloody rampage, tearing apart every human she comes across in search of more cocaine. The movie feeds her some tourists, Sari (Keri Russell) is in the park looking for her kids who’ve wandered off, there are a few hoodlums hanging around sticking people up, there’s a park ranger and some paramedics, and Syd (Ray Liotta) and a couple of his guys have come down from St. Louis to recover his drugs.

If that sounds like a long list of annoying distractions from the cocaine bear in a movie called Cocaine Bear, that’s because it is.

Some folks need to do an entire gym bag worth of cocaine before they realize the medium is the message.

Georgia State Crime Lab chief medical examiner Kenneth Alonso said her stomach was “literally packed to the brim with cocaine.” He concluded she had eaten 75 pounds of shit, $20 million worth in 1985, but she had only ingested three or four pounds into her bloodstream before dying. This not only paints a vivid picture of the incredible last few minutes of her life, but also has a strange symmetry with Cocaine Bear, which cost $30 million to make in 2023 but only offers 10-to-15 minutes of cocaine bear action.

Cocaine Bear should have been an extremely simple assignment. I’m not here to see Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) whine about his dead ex, and I’m not here to see Sari shout indignantly about how nobody will think of the children, oh, won’t somebody please think of the children? No, I don’t want to think of the children. I bought a ticket for an R-rated movie called Cocaine Bear, I’ve been informed that it’s about a bear who’s out of her mind on cocaine, and I expect to see at least 100 solid minutes of a bear who’s out of her mind on cocaine. That’s my bar for a movie called Cocaine Bear. That’s what would have gotten a pass from me as a stupid, fun movie, if, even if it were kind of sloppy, it had followed through with the promise of a cocaine bear.

Cocaine Bear is one of those movies where the way they decided to put it together completely defines the final product – to borrow a phrase, the medium is the message. It’s meant to be a cheap throwback to the type of camp-slasher creature features that were popular as B movies in 1985.

If it had been made in 1985, they would have found a homeless dude who did a good bear walk, put him in the cheapest bear costume they could find, get a ton of flour and fake blood and put the whole thing together for somewhere between $2 million and $3 million – those are the budget numbers for the Freddy and Jason movies that came out that year, so maybe a little less. It would have been sold on the concept, and the concept of a cocaine bear would have been much more lurid in the middle of the Reagan administration even without a “true story” hook, but it would have also been competing with similar B movies, and it would have needed to deliver. I’m thinking at least 8-10 people mauled to death onscreen, tons of nudity, cocaine absolutely everywhere, good times for all.

The real cocaine bear is not known to have killed anyone while out of her mind on cocaine. What actually happened in the last few minutes of her life is officially unknown, but I think they have a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, Cocaine Bear was made in 2023, so instead of a dude in a costume, the bear is completely CGI. The movie is budgeted at $30 million, and I’m guessing about $29 million of that was spent drawing in the bear, because she’s barely onscreen. Just about every sequence with the bear is in the marketing material in full – not because someone decided to show more than they should have, but because they had so little footage of the bear, all of it needed to be recycled.

She only kills six of the movie’s 11 dead – there are a couple of shooting deaths, a car accident and Thornton’s death falling out of his airplane – and of those six, two are entirely offscreen and two are cut away from just before the bear does her thing, so in a movie called Cocaine Bear that’s billed as bear out of her mind on cocaine tearing people limb from limb, we get to actually see her tear a grand total of two people limb from limb.

The savings of going with a dude in a bear costume can’t be overstated, nor can the artistic merit. It would fully cement Cocaine Bear as the camp homage it wants to be, and cocaine, for all its other benefits, is a wonderfully messy, cinematic substance. The American black bear should look more and more like a polar bear as the movie goes on, but she doesn’t. They can’t even be bothered to draw in the cocaine detail to sell her as a cocaine bear.

The obvious fact that there’s no bear onset shuts down the traditional filmmaking process in so many other ways. There’s no room for interpretation here or for building a better scene, you have to work with the animation you’ve got. Spot animation could also be used to add facial expressions and little impractical details to help sell the dude in the bear costume further, so we’re not talking about giving up the ways that animation can expand the movie, we’re just talking about a little bit of planning to stretch the budget into the best movie it can be.

It’s a project management issue, but it’s also a late capitalism issue. This is how Marvel makes movies – Quantumania, which came out just a week beforehand, is probably the best example of CGI run amok in the series. It’s a very different movie put together with the exact same mentality, that you can just draw in anything that’s non-trivial to photograph, scaled up to the point that several of the characters and the entire world around them is CGI instead of just one bear.

There’s an urgent irony in the casting of the late Ray Liotta, still mostly known 30 years later for his iconic turn as a working class gangster in Goodfellas.

It’s more work, it’s more expensive and it produces a worse product, but all the work happens out of the sight of the person who requests it. Cocaine Bear director/producer Elizabeth Banks’ choice is either a ton of work for herself, or 30 times that amount of work done by six people she never has to meet, and that’s the direction Hollywood has been going for the past 15 years or so.

There’s also a class issue that really sticks in my craw – as the movie nears its climax, it starts navel-gazing about how the bear’s a mother and Sari is too, so they’re buddies because all mothers are the same, and also, cocaine is actually bad. Sari actually interrupts one of the scant few sequences of cocaine bear action to tell Syd off, that all of this is his fault and that actually, he deserves to get torn apart by a bear out of her mind on cocaine because he’s a drug dealer.

Syd, the only person who needs to be in the woods in the first place, who’s just trying to regather the commodity that he sells for groceries and rent. This isn’t Tony Montana getting out of his golden hot tub to drive eight hours and run around the woods looking for bags of shit, this is a working class hump who needs to make ends meet.

This is not an innocent hypocrisy. It’s a direct reflection of the reality that the war on drugs, and American policing in general, is much more focused on enforcing poverty than it is on enforcing laws. The very premise cannot be separated from a “drugs for me, none for thee” mindset – it’s OK for Universal Pictures to sell a $30 million movie on the mere idea of how fun cocaine is, but Syd deserves to get disemboweled onscreen for actually providing it. 

To see this particular movie not only take such a sharp left turn, but to take that turn so it can slag its only character with any concrete motivation, and to slag him for scraping a living using the same drugs the film is celebrating, really rubs me the wrong way.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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