Cocaine Bear true story: How accurate is the Elizabeth Banks film?
The movie stars Ray Liotta, Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, O'Shea Jackson Jr and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
In 1985, Georgia investigators stumbled across a 175-pound black bear in a forest that had overdosed on cocaine.
The animal’s carcass was found next to a duffel bag that had once been filled with more than 70 pounds of cocaine before being dropped from a drug smuggler’s plane.
But the bag had been ripped open, with empty packets of the Class-A drug – worth an estimated $15m – scattered around the forest by the predator, who had ingested a great deal of it.
Now, the bizarre true story of the so-called Cocaine Bear has come to the big screen courtesy of actress and director Elizabeth Banks.
The horror-comedy, which has charged its way into cinemas, stars Keri Russell, O'Shea Jackson Jr, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta, in his final film performance before his death in 2022.
Liotta (Goodfellas) portrays drug kingpin Syd, who attempts to retrieve Thornton's stash with the help of his son Eddie (Ehrenreich).
But how much of the film is fictional and did the Cocaine Bear actually kill anyone in real life? Read on for everything you need to know about the true story behind Cocaine Bear.
Is Cocaine Bear a true story?
The horror-comedy is indeed loosely based on the true story of a 175-pound black bear who, at some point in December 1985, discovered and consumed millions of pounds' worth of cocaine in a Georgia forest.
In real life, the bear ingested the cocaine, worth an estimated $15m, and subsequently overdosed, before it was discovered by officials searching for drugs dropped by an airborne smuggler, Andrew Thornton.
According to an Associated Press article from the time, authorities believed the bear had consumed "several million dollars worth of the cocaine".
"The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD'd (overdosed)," Gary Garner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation explained to the outlet.
"There's nothing left but bones and a big hide," he added of the animal.
As for exactly how the cocaine ended up in the forest, it was believed that Thornton, a former lawyer and narcotics police officer, had dumped the packages from his plane months earlier on his return from a cocaine haul in Colombia.
More like this
After dropping the packages, Thornton put the plane on autopilot and parachuted out with more cocaine attached to his body.
It was a move that ultimately resulted in his death after his parachute failed to open, and he was found in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee.
According to The Washington Post’s obituary at the time, Thornton was wearing night vision goggles and a bulletproof vest, and also had $4,500 in cash on him, two guns, and the keys to the plane that had crashed into the mountains of North Carolina several hours away.
Investigators retraced the flightpath of Thornton's plane and eventually found nine duffel bags of cocaine.
But, of course, the bear beat them to the 10th.
Three months after Thornton's death, the dead bear was discovered south of the state line between Tennessee and Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Despite the bear's real-life origins, all of the human characters who appear in the film are entirely fictional – including the characters played by Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, and the late Ray Liotta.
But Banks explained to RadioTimes.com and other press that it was important to ground her film with relatable human characters who felt like they could be real people.
"What I fell in love with – because I'm an actor first – were all of these character journeys," she said. "These were relatable, grounded people dealing with parenting issues and everyday fears like I want to be more connected to my daughter, I'm dealing with a divorce.
"Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) just wants like a dog to love – he's got nobody and he finds a dog that only he could love. And Alden Ehrenreich, his character Eddie is mourning the loss of his wife and trying to understand how to talk about it with his son. I just loved that about the movie, that's what spoke to me."
Did Cocaine Bear kill anyone in real life?
As detailed above, the horror-comedy is loosely based on an actual bear which overdosed on cocaine, which would no doubt have made it very dangerous indeed.
However, while the movie depicts a subsequent murder rampage by the animal, there is no evidence that this actually occurred.
Talking about why she invented the killing spree, Banks explained to RadioTimes.com and other press that she saw the film as a chance to "avenge" the animal's death.
"My first thought was that I was really sad for the actual bear," she said. "Because the real bear OD'd on the drugs and died. And so I was so tickled by the notion that this movie could be the redemption story for that bear – that I could avenge that original bear's death through making this movie."
While the bear's killing spree in the movie is entirely fictional, a clip comparing the titular bear with a sober one was previously unveiled on the official Twitter account for the film, showing viewers just how dangerous a bear on cocaine would be.
While a regular bear can smell things up to a mile away, climb at a speed of 4 feet per second, and has a top speed of 30 miles per hour, a Cocaine Bear can apparently smell "everything", can climb at a speed of up to 100 feet per second, and has a top speed of up to 75 miles per hour.
Where is Cocaine Bear located now?
The bear's story doesn't end there, though. Kentucky For Kentucky retail store in Lexington, Kentucky has a stuffed bear on show, which it claims is the original.
“Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that,” the medical examiner who performed the bear’s necropsy told the store.
“Cerebral haemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”
Cocaine Bear trailer
Universal released a trailer for the movie at the end of 2022, giving fans their first look at Cocaine Bear's killing spree. Watch below:
Additional reporting by Patrick Cremona
Cocaine Bear is scheduled to land in cinemas on 24th February 2023.
Wondering what to watch on TV? Visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide or visit our Film hub for more news and features.
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.