Cocaine Bear is a movie about a bear that eats a lot of cocaine. Other things happen, too, after the bear eats the cocaine, some of them involving severed limbs and ambulances and children getting high on narcotics. It packs a lot of business into a 90-minute runtime, which is commendable in a number of ways. More movies should get wild animals all gassed up on party drugs and wrap up the action in under two hours. This is something I’ve been saying for many years.
My favorite scene in the movie happens right at the beginning. A man — played by Matthew Rhys, reuniting him with his The Americans co-stars Keri Russell and Margo Martindale, which is hilarious — is heaving some duffel bags of cocaine out of an airplane as “Jane” by Jefferson Starship plays. He’s having fun. Maybe too much fun. As he is getting ready to jump out himself, he donks his head on the doorway and falls and dies. This is how and why the bear gets to the cocaine. Because the guy who was supposed to collect it on the ground was dead in a mangled heap on the grass. It’s a nice little piece of business. I have had “Jane” stuck in my head for a full day now.
It is also, kind of, a real thing that happened. A man really did die while skydiving with many duffel bags of cocaine. A bear really did eat a lot of it. The real bear died, though, very quickly (because of all the cocaine), and did not murder anyone in a forest. (As far as we know.) Producer Christopher Miller touched on all of this in a recent interview.
The story that inspired this is wild in its own right, and the kind of true-life, scandalous caper that most Hollywood filmmakers would think, “That’s the movie.” How did you resist that and instead go in a direction like this, which is certainly more unexpected and audacious.
Miller: As we were developing it, it was very clear that the thing you are most interested in, in this telling, was the bear. And when you’re away from the bear for too long, you would get antsy. It was sort of like “get to the dinosaurs,” like in Jurassic Park. We’re like, “Alright, give me some dinosaurs.” But it’s true that Andrew Thornton III [the real-life smuggler] is a crazy character and his story is nuts. There’s a lot you could do with him. But at the end of the day, you gotta get to the dinosaurs.
He is correct on a few fronts here, which I will address in order:
- It is good, if your movie is called Cocaine Bear, to get right to the cocaine-eating bear, especially if you want to keep your movie under two hours, which you should always try to do, for me
- Andrew Thornton III was indeed a crazy character
Let’s learn a little bit more about the real-life Andrew Thornton III, via the New York Times.
Mr. Thornton was a known drug smuggler and a former police officer. He was found dead the morning of Sept. 11, 1985, in the backyard of a house in Knoxville, Tenn., wearing a parachute and Gucci loafers. He also had several weapons and a bag containing about 35 kilograms of cocaine, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
Do me a favor here, just for a second. We’ll get back to the business at hand soon, I promise. But first: Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning and stumble to the kitchen to make some coffee, little crusties all in your eyes, and you look out the window into your backyard and see… wait a second… is that… is that a heavily-armed man in Gucci loafers surrounded by the flowing fabric of a parachute and also many duffel bags full of a white powder that sure might be cocaine? That’s a lot. You could dine out on that story for the rest of your life. Lord knows I would. I’m dining out on it now and it didn’t even happen to me.
Some other interesting facts about Andrew Thornton III:
- He was the child of wealthy thoroughbred owners
- In addition to being a police officer and drug smuggler, he was also a lawyer and a former military paratrooper
- He actually died because the load he was carrying was too heavy, not because he bopped his head while rocking out to 1980s bangers in an airplane
Let’s ignore that last one, actually. I like the fictionalized version better. But here’s a little more on the other two, from the 1985 write-up of the whole thing in the Los Angeles Times.
“He was an expert skydiver and the type of guy who wouldn’t even let anyone touch his pack. He was a fanatic” about his equipment, said a friend in Lexington.
He joined the Lexington police in 1968 and stayed for nine years. In 1981, the Lexington Herald quoted sources as saying Thornton had set up the department’s intelligence squad.
This all might be ringing a number of bells for some of you, especially if you like watching quality television shows about loose cannon U.S. Marshals from Kentucky who play by their own rules but still get results, as you should. The fourth season of Justified — maybe its best — did a similar thing. The season opened with a dead parachuter in a neighborhood and a lot of cocaine on the ground around him. The plot spun around from there, with smugglers using hidden identities and sweet prostitutes and a collection of organized crime figures who would very much like to locate all of those people. No bears, though. Which was a bummer, in hindsight. I would have liked to see Walton Goggins try to rationalize with a speed-riddled black bear. I still would, if that’s an option. On television or in real life. I can be flexible.
And here’s the reason the two things seem similar in a lot of ways: They were, in fact, both inspired by the actions of Andrew Thornton III. They both came from the same birthplace, all written up in a book called The Bluegrass Conspiracy. They both started with a maniac in an airplane full of cocaine and a parachute that didn’t open, which, to be fair, is a great place to start any story. Please consider this if you are writing and/or producing Paddington 3, or want me to write and/or produce it.
They went off in different directions after that, sure. One focused on secret pasts and featured Timothy Olyphant in a cowboy hat and the other asked that age-old question “what if a bear ate some cocaine and killed everything it saw for a while?” That’s how art works sometimes. Ideas can come from a lot of places. Like, to choose an example at random, from a real story about a former paratrooper turned cop turned drug smuggler whose parachute didn’t open and fell to his death in someone’s yard while a bear ate most of the cocaine he was smuggling. Inspiration is funny like that.
Anyway, if you’re keeping score at home, this brings the list of notable similarities between Justified and Cocaine Bear to two; the first and most notable is… uh, all of this; and the second, they both featured Margo Martindale in a prominent role. Tough to ask for much more out of any piece of entertainment.