Review: Inspired by true Lexington story, ‘Cocaine Bear’ takes a quite few leaps

“Cocaine Bear” could have been a great episode of the Comedy Central hit “Drunk History.”

“SO, THERE WAS THIS BEAR, THAT DID COCAINE!” we can imagine our schnockered narrator declaring, before we go into a winking dramatization of actual events that originated right here in Central Kentucky.

The new Elizabeth Banks movie, in theaters this weekend, is based on one of the footnotes of the Bluegrass Conspiracy, a scandal that was revealed in 1985 when Andrew Thornton, a former Lexington narcotics officer turned drug smuggler fell from a plane to his death in a Knoxville driveway with 75 pounds of cocaine in his possession.

Before that ill-fated skydive in which his parachute failed, Thornton tossed a portion of his load of cocaine out of the plane over the North Georgia mountains. Several months later, a 175-pound black bear was found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest near one of the duffle bags that had contained Thornton’s cocaine.

A movie about what actually happened to the poor bear would have been a short subject, because the Georgia medical examiner determined that the bear died within 20 to 30 minutes of ingesting the cocaine.

‘Acute cocaine intoxication.’ How does the real cocaine bear’s story compare to the movie?

But “Cocaine Bear” ain’t no documentary.

This movie takes the idea of a bear on cocaine and runs with it like the title character chasing coke-covered Jesse Tyler Ferguson up a tall tree. That scene, that is actually in this movie, should tell you a lot about where it’s coming from. If you are looking for a more serious treatment of the Bluegrass Conspiracy, you might try Sally Denton’s bestselling book or Season 4 of the FX hit series, “Justified,” that drew a lot of inspiration from the scandal.

“Cocaine Bear” is here for laughs and horror, supposing the tale of a coked-up bear — who appears to weigh a lot more than 175 pounds — unleashing a day of terror on hikers, a forest ranger, kids playing hooky, and the very drug dealers responsible for the cocaine being there in the first place. There’s a little revenge fantasy going on somewhere in here. (Curiosity seekers wanting to see the movie with the local ties should be advised this is pretty gory. Cocaine Bear is something of a land shark and there’s no water to cover the fallout.)

Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale star in “Cocaine Bear,” based loosely on a true story with Lexington, Ky., ties.
Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale star in “Cocaine Bear,” based loosely on a true story with Lexington, Ky., ties.

This is a movie that for the most part knows what it is and achieves the right amount of ridiculousness to often work.

We have to acknowledge some moral dilemmas here: This is based on a bear that died because a drug dealer dropped his load in the wild, and the bear unwittingly did what bears do. This paper lamented at the time that humans had found yet another way to kill animals. And we are talking about cocaine, a substance that has taken and ravaged millions of lives. A lot of people understandably don’t find cocaine funny, and no amount of self-aware humor will assuage that.

“Cocaine Bear” feels like a mainstay of the era it portrays — a campy, kinda scary, gross romp you can imagine seeing at a midnight movie or popping in the VCR somewhere between prime time and bedtime in the mid-to-late ’80s. The movie doesn’t quite achieve a “Stranger Things” level of Reagan-era accuracy and savvy, but it does a pretty good job representing the time, including Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-soaked score. There are some obvious musical selections like Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” though somehow a certain Clapton song didn’t make the soundtrack.

Ray Liotta, right, starred in “Cocaine Bear” as a drug barron. He died in his sleep in May 2022 at age 67.
Ray Liotta, right, starred in “Cocaine Bear” as a drug barron. He died in his sleep in May 2022 at age 67.

The dialogue in Jimmy Warden’s screenplay is fairly bad, and often seems to know it, though there are lines you can imagine being quoted decades from now. In addition to Ferguson, there are a number of other stars that make you wonder what they are doing here, including Margo Martindale knowing exactly what she’s doing hamming it up as a frustrated forest ranger. Fans of the late Ray Liotta will be happy to know this was not his last movie.

There are storylines, including one about mothers protecting their young that might fancy itself profound. But in essence this is a one-joke comedy inspired by true events that never gets too far from its inspiration and is never bothered with the truth.