Review: ‘Cocaine Bear’ is highly entertaining horror-comedy

The new release is or will be playing at local movie theaters such as Cozy Theatre in Wadena, Comet Theater in Perham and Washington Square 7 in Detroit Lakes.

"Cocaine Bear" movie poster
"Cocaine Bear" is a new movie by actress-turned-director Elizabeth Banks. The R-rated horror comedy was inspired by true events.
Frank Lee / Wadena Pioneer Journal

Yogi Bear “Cocaine Bear” is not.

Any resemblance of the titular drug-addicted American black bear in the new horror-comedy in theaters to the former Hanna-Barbera cartoon creation Yogi Bear from the 1960s — or even the lovable Care Bears of the 1980s — there is definitely not.

“Cocaine Bear” is a new release by actress-turned-director Elizabeth Banks, who people may remember as the boozy girlfriend of Mitchell and Cameron in the TV comedy series “Modern Family” or from her memorable film roles in “The Hunger Games” and “Pitch Perfect” franchises.

Loosely based on true events, “Cocaine Bear” takes what seems to be an absurdly preposterous premise — of a black bear in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in northern Georgia during the mid-1980s who ingests large amounts of cocaine — and runs with it.

Except the premise of the R-rated movie is true: The bear, who was later nicknamed “Pablo Eskobear,” was a 175-pound bear that overdosed on cocaine in 1985. But it did not embark on a drug-fueled murderous rampage imagined in the film, which is destined for cult status.


Frank Lee
Frank Lee
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The bizarre true story starts with Andrew Thornton, who died when his parachute did not deploy. The former narcotics officer, lawyer and skydiver’s body was reportedly found equipped with duffle bags of combat gear, including weapons and more than 75 pounds of cocaine.

“'I’m glad his parachute didn’t open. I hope he got a hell of a high out of that (cocaine),’” a U.S. assistant attorney general in California told the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time.

According to the Gannett-owned publication, the lawyer had reportedly prosecuted Thornton on a marijuana-trafficking charge that resulted in Thornton serving six months in federal prison.

The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale is fictionalized in Banks’ 90-minute movie and shares little in common with the actual events, such as U.S. Forestry agents in Georgia near the Tennessee border found three duffle bags with 99 packages of cocaine dropped by Thornton.

“Cocaine Bear” never explicitly explains the reason behind Thornton’s decision to throw the valuable duffel bags out from the plane, nor does the motion picture even mention him by name. But it is suspected the real Thornton thought he was being pursued by federal narcotics agents.

In late December of 1985, a bear was found dead in Chattahoochee National Forest, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, and “scattered around were 40 plastic bags ripped open by the bear,” who died of a "cocaine snack," overdosing after ingesting around 2 to 4 grams of cocaine.

Drug addiction is not an inherently funny subject as it pertains to humans; it’s a problem that plagues American society. But a wild bear that comes upon packages of the controlled substance and then ironically comes to take revenge on those responsible is, it seems.

The bear in Banks’ dark comedy may have wilderness lovers never looking at a bear the same way again, especially after it chases and relentlessly pursues the ensemble cast, looking for its next fix or high, and is angered or behaves violently in search of the addictive white powder.


There are a few subplots in “Cocaine Bear” but among the main characters is a single mom played by Keri Russell of “Felicity” fame, who ventures out into the wilderness to save her young daughter and her daughter’s friend who skips school to go on an adventure.

Ray Liotta also turns up in “Cocaine Bear” as a St. Louis drug kingpin in search of the dropped cocaine and wants to recover it before his Columbian associates turn on him and his family. The movie is one of Liotta’s posthumous releases and the film is dedicated in memory of him.

“Cocaine Bear” currently has a 71% approval rating among critics and a 75% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The consensus from the critics at "Despite (the film’s) half-baked plot and uneven acting, the titular fur fiend's scene-snorting frenzy will give B-movie enthusiasts a contact high."

FRANK LEE is the movie columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. He may be reached at 218-631-6470 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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