Elizabeth Banks’ Wacky ‘Cocaine Bear’ Is Based on a True Story

The Big Picture

  • The 1980s drug trade has inspired countless stories and movies due to its outrageous and boundary-pushing nature.
  • Cocaine Bear is a campy thriller based on the true story of a bear that overdosed on cocaine and went on a murderous rampage.
  • The bear’s story is intertwined with that of Andrew Thornton, a former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler, whose skydiving accident led to the bear’s discovery of the cocaine.

The 1980s is remembered for a lot of things, specifically an unmanageable amount of cocaine traffic and importation into the United States that would leave a twisted legacy for decades to come, and one we still feel today. There have been numerous stories, movies, TV shows, and even songs inspired by the 1980s drug trade, from Scarface to Narcos, and they never get old. Not only are these projects inspired by actual events, but they are often outrageous and push the boundaries of what is deemed as “normal,” either by substantial amounts of money, violence, or drama. They each embody some form of gluttony and are positively engrossing, yet all somewhat similar.

Elizabeth BanksCocaine Bear was released earlier this year, and as the name implies, it’s quite the ride. We are presented with the story of a bear that has had just a little too much fun with the narcotic that plagued the bullish ’80s. Cocaine Bear is a campy thriller about a black bear who finds and devours at least a brick of cocaine that literally falls from the sky. The bear then goes on a murderous rampage, terrorizing those that cross its path. Complete with outrageously over-the-top violence, and a star-studded cast including Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and the late, great Ray Liotta, Cocaine Bear gives us all the makings of a classic movie inspired by the era. Oh, and it’s actually a true story.

Cocaine Bear Poster

Cocaine Bear

Release Date
February 24, 2023

Elizabeth Banks

Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Brooklynn Prince


95 minutes

Main Genre

Thriller, Comedy

‘Cocaine Bear’ Is More Violent Than the True Story

The true story, although interesting, is a lot less monstrous. On December 22, 1985, the Associated Press reported that while authorities were searching for cocaine dropped by a former officer who was smuggling the drug into the United States, they found the remains of a black bear who had appeared to have gotten into the cocaine and overdosed. At the time, the bear had been dead for about a month. Near the bear’s carcass, a duffle bag and 40 kilograms of cocaine were found torn open and dissipated in the area.

It’s believed that the bear may have eaten a few million dollars worth of cocaine before its tragic and untimely death and overdosed shortly after that. The autopsy of the bear revealed that the bear suffered all the afflictions consistent with a massive overdose from cerebral hemorrhaging to stroke. Those that performed the autopsy later said that the bear’s stomach was packed “to the brim” with cocaine. The bear was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Blue Ridge, Georgia.

The bear was later stuffed and passed from owner to owner, state to state, for over 25 years. At one point, he supposedly even found himself in the hands of Waylon Jennings. Eventually, the bear earned the nickname “Pablo Escobear,” a punny reference to the cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Pablo Escobear found his (hopefully) permanent home in Kentucky, where he is on display at the Kentucky Fun Mall being visited by adults and children alike.

Matthew Rhys Plays Smuggler Andrew Thornton Briefly in ‘Cocaine Bear’

As if the bear’s story wasn’t lurid enough, the story surrounding the smuggler is also the stuff of movies, and it did inspire an episode of Justified. The smuggler’s name was Andrew Thornton, a former narcotics officer gone bad. According to The L.A. Times, Andrew Thornton’s career as a police offer began in Lexington, Kentucky. Before his career as an officer and smuggler, he served in the 101st Airborne Division and was a Purple Heart recipient. His friends would have described him as an “expert” in skydiving from his military career. Nonetheless, he joined the Lexington police force in 1968, where he would stay for nine years. From 1970-1973, he was on the department’s narcotics squad. While working for Lexington, he studied law at the University of Kentucky and, by 1977, would become a practicing attorney.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Thornton turned to drug and weapons smuggling. He was first indicted in 1981 in Fresno, California in connection with a weapons theft case from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and marijuana trafficking. Although he wasn’t charged in this case, he was charged with conspiring to import and distribute a controlled substance. One of the crimes he was charged with included being the pilot of a drug run into Kentucky from South America in 1979. He was not charged with a felony but sentenced to six months in prison, and his license to practice law was suspended.

Elizabeth Banks’ ‘Cocaine Bear’ Takes Creative Liberties

Thornton’s drug smuggling career did not end there, though, which leads us back to Blow Bear. He continued smuggling drugs, and on September 11, 1985, Thornton attempted another drug run, this time of cocaine, to be delivered to an unknown source. While flying a plane over the Southeast, Thornton realized that his plane was beginning to malfunction. He then began to throw the cocaine out of the plane, strapped about 75 pounds of it to his body, and attempted to skydive to safety. However, unlike his previous jumps in the military, his parachute did not fully open, and he fell to his death.

He was found with two pistols, a bulletproof vest, Gucci loafers, night vision goggles, 34 large bundles of cocaine, and several other miscellaneous possessions. Sometime between the fall and four weeks before December 22, 1985, Cocaine Bear found one of the packages of cocaine Thornton threw out of the plane, ingested it, and died. In a series of events that feels like it could only have happened in the 1980s, the world was given the truly unique tale of the Cocaine Bear. While the bulk of the movie itself does not seem to be based on true events, as Snow Bear likely met a quick end shortly after he discovered the drug itself, it does add to a story and proves once again that truth is often even stranger than fiction.

Cocaine Bear is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

Watch on Prime Video

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