“Investigators searching for cocaine dropped by an airborne smuggler found a torn shipment of the sweet-smelling powder and the remains of a bear that apparently died of a multimillion-dollar high.”
So began the December 23, 1985 Associated Press report on one of the most bizarre drug trafficking stories in history.
The 175-pound black bear’s body was discovered in the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, about 80 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia, and south of the Tennessee border, near a duffel bag and 40 packages of the drug that had been ripped and scattered across a hillside.
Cocaine had fallen from the sky three months earlier, courtesy of former narcotics investigator and Army paratrooper turned drug dealer Andrew Thornton; he intended to parachute out of a small plane over Knoxville, Tennessee, but ended up falling to his death.
Wearing night vision goggles and a bulletproof vest, and carrying guns and knives, according to reports at the time, his body was found at the entrance to a neighborhood. His unmanned Cessna plane crashed into a mountain in North Carolina about an hour later.
The true story of “Pablo Escobear” now forms the basis for the start of the new gore comedy Cocaine Bear, directed by the actress and filmmaker. Elizabeth Banks. It’s not for the faint of heart: there’s blood and guts and very gruesome endings (pun intended), and a bear snorting cocaine wherever he can get it, including severed limbs.
Banks, star of films such as Pitch Perfect and The Hunger Games, told Sky News that she “completely fell down the internet rabbit hole” when she first heard the story.
“We were also able to get the police reports from when Andrew’s body was found, and we used a lot of information from various sources and put it into the film,” she says. “Everything Andrew Thornton was wearing when his body was found on the floor, from his Gucci loafers to his bulletproof vest, was recorded in the police report.”
Banks received the script in April 2020, just as the world went into lockdown. “We were going into this global pandemic and I felt chaos all around me and trauma everywhere. I read the script and thought, well, there’s no greater metaphor for chaos than a bear high on cocaine.”
What really happened to Cocaine Bear?
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation official told the Associated Press at the time that Thornton fell and died while carrying a very heavy load while skydiving.
Before finding the bear’s body, investigators located packets of cocaine in identical backpacks at two other locations.
Authorities said the animal, which had been dead for about four weeks when it was discovered, ended up eating several million dollars of the drug and that its stomach was “full to the brim”. Each of the 40 packages were believed to have contained one kilogram and were valued at up to $20m (£16.7m) at the time.
In Cocaine Bear, the bear’s drug consumption leads to a bloody killing spree, rather than its own death; the film shows Thornton’s jump in the first few minutes, but the vast majority of the screen is devoted to what might have happened if the animal had survived.
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Despite the film’s comedy, the true story is tragic. Banks says his first reaction when he heard the real story was “a lot of sympathy” for the bear. “And I thought, wow, this script is actually an amazing redemption story for that bear, who was collateral damage in this crazy war on drugs.”
In real life, “Pablo Escobear” has now gained a cult following in certain areas of the US – and inevitably wider now after the film’s release. The animal’s body was preserved and is now on display at the Kentucky For Kentucky memorabilia and tourist shop. (Thornton was from Kentucky).
“A bear dying of a drug overdose is really sad,” says writer Jimmy Warden. “This (film) was about correcting or rewriting history for the bear, who was really the victim in all of this. But my goal was always just to create something that was fun. And I think the film definitely does that very well.”
Ray Liotta’s Last Performance
Cocaine Bear stars Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta, in his last film performance before his death in 2022. He plays drug dealer Syd, who is trying to recover Thornton’s stash with the help of his son Eddie (Ehrenreich) and tinkerer Daveed (Jackson Jr).
“There’s always a lot of vulnerability, sweetness and emotion in all of his performances, even when he’s playing these extremely menacing characters,” says Ehrenreich, known for films such as Hail, Caesar! and Solo: A Star Wars Story. “It really stuck with him personally, he was just a really sweet man and having a great time.”
“Ray is a legend in the industry,” says Jackson Jr (Just Mercy, Straight Outta Compton). “As an artist, working with big names is a bucket list, and to be able to work with him on one of his final projects is an honor and blessing that I think we will all appreciate.”
‘Your sphincter sucks in your seat…’
Liotta’s drug dealer is one of a motley crew of unfortunates who find themselves wandering the national park, from tourists and a mother looking for her daughter to police and park rangers.
Banks says there is a relationship with all the characters. “You know, the characters aren’t high on cocaine. They’re just trying to get through the day. And I loved the idea of telling this underdog story, with the big hook of the angry bear.”
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Ah, but that’s not entirely true. We see two curious children trying it out. Banks thought this was controversial? “The movie is called Cocaine Bear,” she says. “It’s a big, bold, audacious idea. So we don’t shy away from big, bold choices..
“I think they’re at the appropriate age to be curious about this sort of thing. I remember I was a 12-year-old girl in 1985 and I skipped school. I don’t really think… I think they spit it out, I don’t. i think they are too high on cocaine.no spoilers here.
Ultimately, Banks says he wanted to make a fun movie. “I really enjoyed the power that directing this kind of visceral, tense, emotional and funny film allowed me to have with audiences in their seat. They’re a little sick. It’s an incredible sense of power that I have in taking audiences on this journey. , on this tour. I’m really enjoying it.”
Cocaine Bear is in theaters now