Cocaine Bear: the must-see and must-avoid movie of 2022

Elizabeth Banks’s new film, about the aftermath of a narcotics drop in a Georgia national park, may be less hilarious than it first sounds

There is a school of thought that Elizabeth Banks’s version of Charlie’s Angels flopped because it was too familiar; it was in effect a reboot of a reboot of an iconic television series that had long wrung itself dry. People knew exactly what to expect from it, so they stayed away. That’s unlikely to happen with her next film, though, because her next film is going to be called Cocaine Bear.

And, I mean, you’re in, right? You’d watch a film called Cocaine Bear. Regardless of quality or budget or genre, you’d watch Cocaine Bear. You wouldn’t even buy your tickets online, because that would rob you of the opportunity to say out loud to a cinema employee: “I would like to spend my own money to watch a film called Cocaine Bear.”

The mind boggles at all the different things that Cocaine Bear could be. It could be Scarface with a bear, or Easy Rider with a bear, or City of God with a bear. It could even be The Business with a bear, though that would probably be a tragic waste of both cocaine and bears. Either way, it’s a film with bears and cocaine in it. You’re in, right?

Except Cocaine Bear is going to be based on a real story about a real bear that had a run-in with some real cocaine in the 1980s. And that automatically takes the story from “immediately hilarious” to “potentially quite harrowing”.

Especially since the story of what happened is both quite short and pointedly sad. In December 1985, a bear was walking around Chattahoochee-Oconee national forest, minding its own business, when it found 40 plastic bags of cocaine worth $15m. So it ate them, and then died.

Cocaine Bear
More talkative than your average bear … Cocaine Bear, who is now on display at Kentucky Fun Mall, Lexington. Photograph: KYforKY

The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on the bear said the cause of death was: “Cerebral haemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.” Its stomach was “literally packed to the brim with cocaine”, he said. “There isn’t a mammal on the planet who could survive that.”

Which sort of takes the shine off Cocaine Bear a bit, because a film where a real bear suffering a miserable drug overdose alone in the frozen woods doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster. Fortunately, it’s likely that the film will tell the story of why the bear found the cocaine, which is a humdinger of a caper.

It turns out that the man who left the cocaine in the woods was Andrew Thornton, a corrupt narcotics officer who had become the head of an international drug smuggling operation. Though he was first arrested in 1981, the police released him in the hope that he would lead them to more powerful figures connected with the drug trade, possibly even government officials. However, while transporting cocaine by plane four years later, he ran into engine trouble. Frightened, he dumped as much of it out of the plane’s doors as he could, and then evacuated by parachute. But the parachute didn’t open properly, and Thornton died on impact 50 miles away in Knoxville, next to 70lb of cocaine, thousands of dollars in cash and three weapons.

Which is a fun enough story. It sounds a little like the 2017 Tom Cruise film American Made. But, then again, it does end with a real-life bear, frightened and disorientated and suffering an unthinkably agonising death. And whatever you thought of American Made, you have to admit that its climax didn’t involve a bear choking on its vomit in unbelievable pain, which has to be a good thing.

And that means that Cocaine Bear might not be the zany fun-time comedy that its title suggests. That said, the press at the time did dub the poor creature “Pablo Escobear”. You’re back in, right?


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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