A true rural story is mined for movie madness in ‘Cocaine Bear’

Published 2:30 pm Friday, March 10, 2023

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By Keith Roysdon

The Daily Yonder

“Cocaine Bear” might be a contender for the most honestly marketed movie ever. If you’ve seen the trailer, you should know exactly what the movie will be. Heck, if you’ve only seen the poster, you pretty much know what the movie will be.

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The fact that “Cocaine Bear” is based on a true story — loosely based, mind you — is beside the point. This is a goofy, gory, and preposterous movie that tells its “out in the boondocks” story with such glee it dares you to acknowledge the kernel of truth at the center of the tale.

It’s comparable in its middle-of-nowhere horrors and disbelieving guffaws to a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, or even “Deliverance.” Did these things happen? Some of them may have. Could they happen? Well, anything is possible.

Moviegoing audiences ate up “Cocaine Bear” like a bear … or, well, like a bear that eats cocaine, apparently. Variety, the show business news source, reported that the movie “blew past box office projections, earning an impressive $23 million from 3,534 North American theaters in its opening weekend.”

“Cocaine Bear” broke into the public consciousness a few months ago when its outrageous name and premise became well known, and it further solidified its “WTF” status with its preview trailer. But some people, particularly in East Tennessee and the broader Appalachian region, were keenly aware of this story long before, because they knew the true events behind the film.

The true story

The movie is set in 1985, the year the real-life “Cocaine Bear” events took place. According to coverage in the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time and in recent weeks, a parachutist named Andrew Thornton fell to his death in South Knoxville on Sept. 11, 1985. When Thornton’s body was examined, it was found to be equipped with survival gear, weapons, and 75 pounds of cocaine in “football-sized bundles” in a duffle bag. His parachute apparently didn’t open.

Thornton was from Kentucky and had previously been prosecuted on a marijuana charge. The plane he was flying crashed in North Carolina after he bailed out over Knoxville.

The bizarre incident attracted media attention from New York to Seattle and even as far away as Australia, the News Sentinel reported. Interest heightened when authorities started finding other duffle bags of cocaine in Georgia near the Tennessee state line.

The story took another odd turn in December 1985, when the newspaper reported that a 175-pound bear had been found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest near the Georgia-Tennessee line. Around the bear? 40 plastic bags that had been torn open.

The newspaper reported that the bear had ingested up to four grams of cocaine and died in about 30 minutes.

A total of 520 pounds of cocaine were found in duffle bags.

As weeks and months went on, news reports detailed how a companion to Thornton had successfully made the parachute jump and how the smugglers had decided to throw duffels of cocaine out of the airplane because they thought they were being pursued by federal agents.

End of story — that is until December 2019, when Hollywood producing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller announced they would make a “horror comedy” out of the incident.

Hitting the Big Screen

Lord and Miller are a well-known creative pair, having written or produced hits like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Lego Movie,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and the upcoming “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

They enlisted Elizabeth Banks, director of “Pitch Perfect 2” and the 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, to direct the film. As an actress, she has a long resume and played Effie, chaperone to the Hunger Games combatants, in the movie series based on the popular books.

The cast here is a mix of familiar and fresh faces, including three veterans of the highly-praised TV series “The Americans,” Keri Russell, Margo Martindale (also well-remembered from the Appalachian-set series “Justified”), and Matthew Rhys as Thornton. The film includes one of the final performances of actor Ray Liotta, who died in May 2022. The film is dedicated to him.

The movie, which released on February 24, is exactly what you’d expect: It’s goofy and bloody and has a few good scares. The characters range from opportunistic drug dealers trying to recover the cocaine to police tracking the dealers to Russell’s character, a nurse and mother trying to find her daughter, who is lost with a friend in the same woods where, unknown to all, the cocaine-engorged bear is rampaging.

The movie is mostly free of dumb southerner stereotypes, in part because almost every character fits some archetype or stereotype, and most all of them are dumb. This isn’t “Dukes of Hazzard.” It’s more like the blend of a slasher movie and a disaster movie, but way smarter than something like the infamous “Sharknado” TV movies.

Stuffed and Stray Bears

The idea of a parachutist laden with illicit booty falling to his death in a residential area isn’t unique. A 2013 episode of “Justified,” called “Hole in the Wall,” also took inspiration from Thornton’s failed drug run, in this case focusing on the hunt for someone who collected and hid the stash for decades.

There’s been a lot of interest in the new movie in Knoxville because of all the local cocaine bear history. A theater showing the movie was quite busy for a mid-afternoon screening on Saturday, the day after the movie opened nationwide.

One of the trailers that played before “Cocaine Bear” was for “Strays,” a movie produced by, among others, Lord and Miller and featuring the story of stray dogs who plot revenge against the owner who abandoned one of the them. The trailer promises a story of humor, profanity-laced dialogue, and maulings. The audience, primed for “Cocaine Bear,” ate it up.

And what about the bear? The bear in the movie is mostly created through computer-generated imagery (CGI). As for the bear in real life, its remains are purportedly on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, where they’ve been since 2015.

The Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall website claims that the bear even passed through the hands of country music legend Waylon Jennings before it ended up in Lexington. Vanity Fair reported, however, that a Jennings family spokesman said the singer never owned the bear.

Moreover, retired agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation called into question the claim that the Kentucky bear is the cocaine bear. They note that the bear that ingested the cocaine was decomposing before it was found and would not have been the subject of taxidermy efforts.

But that’s Hollywood, isn’t it? A big box-office hit only increases the chances that whatever remains of you will be open to creative interpretation, as well as displayed for tourists at a place with “fun” in the name.