The next Irish cinematic triumph is just around the corner

Donald Clarke: It may be set in Tennessee, but the Wicklow-shot Cocaine Bear is clearly set to be the film of the year

The time has come to celebrate the greatest film of 2023. We have to capture the perfection of the ideal before the reified entity disappoints with any imperfections. It still floats unseen in the imagined near distance. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dreamed Xanadu, Alph, the sacred river, runs through its measureless caverns down to sunless seas. Any real Xanadu would, no doubt, have the odd Pepsi can scattered about its sinuous rills.

Doesn’t Cocaine Bear look completely awesome? It is hard to pin down when word got out to the general public about the greatest film of 2023. The now booming cult seems to have properly started with a trailer in late November. The promo begins as it means to continue with paramedics happening upon the eponymous caniform in the corner of a bloodstained shack. Within seconds at least one medic has offered involuntary rebuttal to the belief – sustained by misguided supermodels in the 1980s – that the coca plant works as an appetite suppressant. That is to say he is close to becoming lunch.

We then move on to an efficient precis of the high concept. Cocaine in bricks is dumped from a small plane on what the trailer claims to be the great state of Tennessee (though we know it’s not). The bear scoffs the lot and sallies forth to make steak tartare from Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell and Margo Martindale out of The Americans. We also see a bit of O’Shea Jackson and Alden Ehrenreich.

Amid all the comic mayhem, there is a moment of genuine poignancy when the great Ray Liotta, who died last summer, pops up to do drugged-up sleazeball as only he can. “A lot of cocaine was lost,” he says. “I need you to go and get it.” If you get the right version of the trailer you’ll then enjoy some proper comic dismemberment. It ends with a great closing gag at the almost certainly justified expense of tree-hugging hikers.


Like Gandhi and A Man for All Seasons, Cocaine Bear is based on a true story. In December 1985, a drug smuggler dumped a bag of cocaine from his over-loaded plane and inadvertently caused the death of an American black bear. No former stars of GoodFellas or Solo: A Star Wars were harmed before the unfortunate beast, going out in the premature manner of a failed hair-metal guitarist, was found expired beside 40 chewed packets of marching powder.

Astonishingly, the bear, now stuffed, is on display at a mall in Lexington, Kentucky. He has been nicknamed Pablo EskoBear. It has been a while since I have written the words “only in United States”. But, you know ... only in United States.

Within hours of the trailer landing, Cocaine Bear had become a viral sensation. Stills of the ursine snow addict were everywhere on Twitter. Someone suggested that Paddington (Zen, peace-loving) and Cocaine Bear (furious, flesh-loving) represented the duelling instincts within every human psych.

Here’s the thing. Cocaine Bear really does ooze with potential

Someone else grabbed a shot of Jane Fonda announcing Parasite as best picture at the Oscars and substituted the line: “And the Oscar goes to ... Cocaine Bear”. Much fun was had with that still of Martin Scorsese beside the words: “This is cinema”.

The folk behind Cocaine Bear knew what they were doing. It emerged that the medic attacked at the beginning of the trailer is played by Scott Seiss, a TikTok personality who goes by the name of “The IKEA guy”. Everything about the promo seems designed to generate online snark and articles such as the one you are now reading. There are obvious dangers in this sort of marketing. It is, amazingly, 17 years since the digital world got itself excited about a potential cult classic called Snakes on a Plane. The film ended up doing only modest business and failed to excite the few that saw it. Michael Flatley’s Blackbird, subject of frenzied chatter for a full four years after completion, has been largely forgotten since its eventual release last autumn.

But here’s the thing. Cocaine Bear really does ooze with potential. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the guys behind The Lego Movie, are among the producers. Elizabeth Banks, who did good work on Pitch Perfect 2, is behind the camera. As well as the actors mentioned above, the cast features Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project and Isiah Whitlock Jr from The Wire. There’s another thing. Cocaine Bear was, indeed, filmed largely in Wicklow. Maybe we can claim it as an Irish film.

Maybe, 12 months after the current Oscar furore, Jane Fonda really will announce another domestic triumph from the stage of the Dolby Theatre. All things are possible before February 24th when the Platonic ideal becomes fleshy, snorty, pupil-dilated reality.