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The unbelievable true story behind Cocaine Bear

The horror-comedy stars Ray Liotta in one of his final performances

The story behind Cocaine Bear sounds too unbelievable to be true.

Elizabeth Banks' gory horror-comedy tells the tale of a black bear that goes on a murderous rampage after eating huge amounts of cocaine.

The film's tagline claims it's "inspired by true events", but how much of Cocaine Bear actually happened? As the movie becomes available to stream on Sky Cinema and NOW, here's everything you need to know.

The true story behind Cocaine Bear

The story of Cocaine Bear is loosely based on the events of a drug-smuggling operation that went badly wrong in September 1985.

Andrew Thornton, a former US narcotics officer, was dropping duffel bags of cocaine into Georgia from a light aircraft while on a smuggling run from Colombia. After reportedly having issues with the engine, he jumped out, but hit his head on the tail of the aircraft and his parachute failed to open.

Read more: The best films new to streaming

The 40-year-old died on impact on a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, 50 miles away. He was wearing night vision goggles, a bulletproof vest and Gucci loafers, and carrying guns, knives, thousands of dollars in cash, plus packages of cocaine worth $15m. The auto-piloted aircraft was later found crashed in Hayesville, North Carolina.

Cocaine Bear tells the tale of a drug-fuelled black bear that goes on a murderous rampage
Cocaine Bear tells the tale of a drug-fuelled black bear that goes on a murderous rampage. (Universal Pictures)

Three months later, a 79kg black bear was discovered dead in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest, having eaten cocaine from a bag dropped off by Thornton.

Gary Garner, an official from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), said: "The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD'd. There's nothing left [of the bear] but bones and a big hide."

It's unclear how much the bear ingested. All 40 bundles of cocaine – 40kg in total, valued at $20m – had been ripped open and were empty. An autopsy found that the animal absorbed only three or four grams of cocaine into its blood stream, although it could have eaten more.

Ray Liotta in Cocaine Bear
Cocaine Bear stars the late Ray Liotta in one of his final performances. (Universal Pictures)

There is no evidence, however, that the bear went on a rampage, as portrayed in Cocaine Bear. In reality, the animal likely died quickly after ingesting the drug.

"It wouldn't have taken very much to kill him," said another GBI official, Fran Wiley. "He could have eaten a half pound and that would have killed him."

The animal's stomach was "literally packed to the brim with cocaine," according to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. "There isn't a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral haemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it."

Who is in the Cocaine Bear cast?

Keri Russell in Cocaine Bear
Keri Russell in Elizabeth Banks' new film Cocaine Bear. (Universal Pictures)

Cocaine Bear stars the late Ray Liotta in one of his final performances. The Goodfellas actor, who died last year aged 67, plays drug kingpin Syd Dentwood, whose cocaine is dropped into Chattahoochee National Forest by smuggler Andrew Thornton (played by Matthew Rhys).

Dentwood tasks trusted drug dealer Daveed (Straight Outta Compton's O'Shea Jackson Jr) with recovering the cocaine to avoid violent repercussions from Colombian associates.

The Americans star Keri Russell plays a worried mother, Sari, who searches the forest for her missing daughter Deirdre (Brooklynn Prince) and her classmate Henry (Christian Convery).

Cocaine Bear
The comedy-thriller is loosely based on real events. (Universal Pictures)

Meanwhile, Detective Bob Springs (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and partner Officer Reba Mitchell (Ayoola Smart) are despatched to search for the cocaine – which happens to have been consumed by a huge bear which is attacking anyone in its drug-crazed path.

The ensemble cast also includes Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Alden Ehrenreich from Solo: A Star Wars Story and veteran character actress Margo Martindale.

Read more: Cocaine Bear cast recall the weirdest on-set moments with fake bear

According to director Elizabeth Banks, the message of the film is simple: "If you f*** with nature, nature will f*** with you". She told Total Film magazine: "I thought this bear was collateral damage [in] a broken war on drugs. I had a lot of empathy for it. I felt like this film could be the bear's revenge story."

Cocaine Bear was produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – best known for their work on animated hits The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – and written by Jimmy Warden, who penned Netflix horror-comedy The Babysitter: Killer Queen.

Cocaine Bear available to stream on Sky Cinema and NOW