Fact checking 'Cocaine Bear': What's true (and what's not) in 'super-charged' survival movie

Brian Truitt

Audiences will no doubt laugh, gasp and/or hide their eyes when the title beast of “Cocaine Bear” mauls unsuspecting victims while extremely high. And for director Elizabeth Banks, the good stuff is when "everybody's sphincter tightens up at the same time."

Banks admits she made the dark comedy (in theaters and available on Apple TV, Vudu and Amazon) "knowing it should be seen with a bunch of friends in an hour and a half at 7:15 and then you should go have beers afterward.”

A bear doing coke on screen is pretty crazy. So is the wild true story that inspired “Cocaine Bear.” Here’s what’s real and what’s not about the gory survival thriller:

Is 'Cocaine Bear' based on a true story?

Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr., from left), Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Syd (Ray Liotta) seek out missing kilos of coke in "Cocaine Bear."

In 1985, ex-narcotics officer Andrew Thornton (played in the movie by Matthew Rhys) brought more than 800 pounds of cocaine from Colombia into the USA via plane. When he thought he heard on the radio that federal agents were in hot pursuit, Thornton ditched duffel bags full of coke midair, bailed out and was found dead in a Tennessee driveway. Banks even includes a vintage Tom Brokaw news report to drive it home as a true story.

Banks nixed aspects “that were too wild even for this movie,” she says. But details like Thornton's Gucci loafers and night-vision goggles were included because they “felt so cinematic,” says screenwriter Jimmy Warden. There are conflicting reports about how exactly Thornton died, so Banks made the decision to have him knocked out departing the plane. “It’s quicker and more efficient to tell the story if the guy just hits his head and passes out,” Warden says. “And also way funnier.”

How much cocaine did Cocaine Bear take?

A Kentucky mall claims to have the real Cocaine Bear, which died of a drug overdose in 1985.

The drug-filled bags fell into a Georgia national park and were ripped into by a bear. But unlike the movie version, the coked-up creature never killed anybody: Its remains were found after dying of an overdose – surrounded by 40 open containers with traces of cocaine in them.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the beast eventually was stuffed and now resides in the Kentucky Fun Mall, with the owners telling the news outlet that it was once owned by country music legend Waylon Jennings. In a statement to USA TODAY, a representative for son Shooter Jennings said his father never owned a taxidermy bear. And while Fun Mall representatives have not returned calls for comment, the owners did tell the Wall Street Journal that after inheriting a stuffed bear in 2015, they created a backstory that wove real details about the dead bear "with heavy embellishments."

As for the movie, Warden "definitely" didn't want the downer of an animal overdose. Instead, “Cocaine Bear” veers from the original story and centers on a 500-pound coke-addled creature that terrorizes a single mom (Keri Russell), two 12-year-olds (Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery), a pair of criminal buds (O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich), a park ranger (Margo Martindale) and other oddballs. (The late Ray Liotta also has one of his last movie roles in "Cocaine Bear," as a St. Louis drug kingpin.)

Does a real bear play 'Cocaine Bear'?

Director Elizabeth Banks on the set of "Cocaine Bear."

Banks' main character came to life via special-effects wizardry, though the filmmaker found it risky not having her lead character on the set. “All the actors had to trust that the bear was going to look good and be real. It just was a total leap of faith,” she says of the computer-generated animal (called “Cokey”). The director really didn’t feel great about the process until a few months in, when she saw a finalized shot of the movie bear sneezing cocaine onto the kids. “I got a lot more confident after that moment.”

During filming, stunt performer Allan Henry wore a large foam bodysuit and stood in as the drug-fueled beast, so actors had someone to work off live. “He had a bear face that was on the end of this frame in front of his head, so we knew where the head was,” says Ehrenreich says. “It made a huge difference that we really had him there.”

How realistic are the 'Cocaine Bear' high jinks?

The title bear leaping into the back of an ambulance is "the least real moment" of "Cocaine Bear," says director Elizabeth Banks.

Henry studied bear movement videos for certain stunts while Banks went on a deep dive online to best portray various behaviors like waving. “There's a video of a bear doing pretty much anything you can imagine. Bears should not drink a bottle of Coca-Cola, but you can find that on the internet,” she says. “I just need to believe that there's some truth in everything that the bear’s doing.” 

The director didn’t want to stretch the truth too much with how high they jump or how fast they climb trees, though did allow herself certain fantastical moments where it’s “super-charged” on cocaine – for example, the slow-motion sequence when the bear leaps from a high-speed run into the back of a speeding ambulance. “We don't know,” Ehrenreich adds. “If it's on coke, sure, it might be able to do it.”

Do any non-bear characters dip into the coke?

Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and Henry (Christian Convery) find cocaine and a bear in the woods in "Cocaine Bear."

“Cocaine Bear” marries bizarre truth with bonkers action, though Banks says "everyone was just a little concerned" about a fictional scene when the children find a kilo of coke in the forest, try eating some and then spit it out comedically. The moment made the final cut and, for Banks, harks back to “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies.” “It's about the loss of innocence of a 12-year-old and their real curiosity about adult things at that age. I was a 12-year-old girl in 1985, and I remember skipping school and butting up against things I wasn't quite ready for.”

The film on the whole is a subtle critique of the “Just Say No” era and the war on drugs, Warden adds. “A lot of this is about how this bear is sort of the victim in us all. The drugs literally fell out of the sky, almost into her lap like she had no choice. The real carnage ensues when everybody goes to try to get it.”

Read more about 'Cocaine Bear' and other new movies