Cocaine Bear: The unbelievable true story behind Elizabeth Banks' new film

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

Watch the Cocaine Bear trailer

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

Elizabeth Banks' new horror-comedy, which will be released next month, 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?

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.

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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.

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)

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

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"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."

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

Legend has it that the bear was taxidermied and gifted to a visitor centre near the forest, before vanishing in the 1990s.

It's said to have ended up at a pawn shop in Nashville, Tennessee, before being bought by country music legend Waylon Jennings. Today, the Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington claims to have the stuffed remains of "Pablo Esco-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
The comedy-thriller is loosely based on real events. (Universal Pictures)

Who's in the Cocaine Bear cast?

Cocaine Bear stars the late Ray Liotta in one of his final performances. The Goodfellas actor, who died last year aged 67, plays Dentwood, a drug kingpin on the hunt for the cocaine.

The ensemble cast also includes The Americans actor Keri Russell as a worried mother searching for her missing daughter – played by rising star Brooklynn Prince – in the woods.

Other stars include Modern Family actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Sweet Tooth's Christian Convery-Jennings.

The film 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 will be released in cinemas on 24 February.