By Laurence Lerman / New York City
As a former DJ, when I first heard about Cocaine Bear several months ago, I couldn’t help but imagine myself voicing an over-the-top radio spot for the film—a frantic, Crazy Eddie-ish commercial hawking what sounded like an equally frantic film:
You’ve done it at parties! You’ve seen them at the zoo (or maybe even in the wild)! And now, the infamous wacky white powder and a claw-slashing carnivore come together in a horror-comedy epic that could only be called Cocaine Bear! Coming to theaters everywhere on February 24!
Cocaine Bear revolves around a drug runner’s plane crash in a Georgia forest, a large stash of missing cocaine and a hulking black bear that apparently eats it all. The 500-pound apex predator subsequently encounters an oddball group of cops, criminals, teens and tourists as he goes on a coke-fueled rampage seeking out more blow…with some blood on the side.
Directed by the actor Elizabeth Banks in her third directorial outing from a script by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear features an ensemble cast that includes Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, Aiden Ehrenrich, O’Shea Jackson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and, in one of his final big screen roles, Ray Liotta.
Opening in 3,500 theaters across North America last Friday to a healthy first weekend box office gross of $23 million, Cocaine Bear came out roaring as it revealed it was more than just a Snakes on a Plane-styled concoction The film also offers a surfeit of thriller elements as well as some redemptive drama, not to mention a healthy dose of affectionate regional flavor à la the early works of Jonathan Demme. (I’m thinking 1977’s Citizen’s Band and 1980’s Melvin and Howard.)
While the name of the film and its subject feel like they were yanked right out of a B movie, there’s much more truth here than you’d initially suspect in movie that is billed as being “inspired by true events.”
The real story behind Cocaine Bear dates back to 1985 and a report about a 175-pound black bear that lived in the Chattahoochee National Forest near the small town of Blue Ridge, Ga.
According to the New York Times, a bear that had been dead for weeks was found by a hunter on a hillside in the forest. The bear died of what appeared to be a cocaine overdose after consuming a large batch of the drug it had stumbled upon in the forest.
“The cocaine was apparently dropped from a plane piloted by Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler who died on Sept. 11 in Knoxville, Tenn., because he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting. The bear was found Friday in northern Georgia among 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine.”
According to a story published by AP a day earlier, each of the plastic containers held one kilogram of cocaine, and the whole lot totaled 88 pounds, valued at as much as $20 million.
Predictably, the movie’s plot differs from the actual events in a number of ways, the most notable being that the real-life Cocaine Bear is not known to have killed anyone after consuming the drugs. And what exactly transpired in the time leading up to its death from an overdose is not known.
But screenwriter Warden and director Banks appear to have enjoyed pumping up the volume as they filled in the blanks.
“This bear is gonna fuck some people up,” declared Banks in an official pre-release featurette that’s been circulating for the past two weeks. “I essentially make comedies and I put them inside of other movies. And this is essentially a comedy inside of a horror movie,” the seasoned actor and occasional filmmaker added.
A radiant screen presence for the past 20 years, Banks is best known as the efficacious Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games film series (2012-15), a cappella competition commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden in the Pitch Perfect series (2012-17) and, demonstrating her range, as former First Lady Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) and Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s second wife Melinda Ledbetter in Love & Mercy.
Banks slipped into the director’s chair and made her directorial debut with 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2. The film had a $69 million opening weekend gross that set a record for a first-time director and ultimately rang up $290 million at the international box office.
Lightning did not strike twice for her 2019 action-comedy Charlie’s Angels, an inevitable reboot of the ’70 TV series and a pair of subsequent cinematic reimaginings in 2000 and 2003. Banks directed, wrote, produced and co-starred in the new version, which went on to a disappointing worldwide gross of $73 million.
Banks took on her third helming effort for Cocaine Bear after reading Warden’s script and falling hard for some of its surprising themes about parenting (as in a bear protecting its cubs) and the sense that the Reagan era’s War on Drugs did some serious damage back in the day.
“The film takes place in 1985, which is the height of all these programs to combat crack in America. So many of those policies went sideways and this bear was collateral damage,” she reasoned in an interview with Total Film Magazine. “Then the other thing is nature itself. We, as humans, with our hubris, feel that we can control nature. But if you fuck with nature, nature will fuck with you.”
Will Cocaine Bear reach the heights of notoriety and box office success that cocaine and bears attained in such contemporary outings as Scarface (1983), Goodfellas (1990) and Blow (2001) and, for the latter, Grizzly (1976), The Edge (1997) and The Revenant (2015)?
We’ll have the answer within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Banks remains confident.
“I can sleep well at night knowing that I did my job well, she proudly declared to Total Film prior to the film’s opening. “If audiences want to see a movie called Cocaine Bear, I have delivered a film that lives up to the title.”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.