“Cocaine Bear,” the terrifying tale of a coked-up black bear who goes on a killing rampage, hit theaters Feb. 24 and early reviews indicate it may not be an Oscar contender.

“We have officially sunk very low with ‘Cocaine Bear,’ ” Associated Press critic Mark Kennedy writes, “way past other films where the title alone describes the only thing that happens, like ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ ‘We Bought a Zoo’ or ‘Sharknado.’”

To date, no known tornadoes have dropped man-eating sharks onto an unsuspecting Peach State populace. But in December 1985, an unlucky member of the furry family Ursidae happened onto the cocaine that killed it, adding another chapter to a strange saga of drug smuggling and the death of a former narcotics agent turned dealer.

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“A North Georgia black bear may have overdosed on cocaine in the latest twist to the cocaine-skydiving scheme of Andrew Thornton, who parachuted to his death in September with 77 pounds of cocaine strapped to his waist,” Constitution reporter Dan Baum wrote on Dec. 23.

Thornton, a Kentucky native who once pursued drug smugglers before turning to the trade himself, was found dead Sept. 11, 1985, near Knoxville, Tennessee, after his main parachute failed to open when he bailed out of an ill-fated drug delivery flight from Colombia.

Dropping duffel bags of cocaine throughout northwest Georgia and Tennessee prior to his death, Thornton unloaded nearly 700 pounds of the drug in the mountains.

The bear, discovered in Fannin County “amid the shredded remains of a duffel bag and cocaine wrappings identical to those already linked to Thornton,” had been dead about a month.

“Dr. Kenneth Alonso, chief medical examiner at the State Crime Lab,” the Constitution’s Kevin Sack wrote Dec. 24, “said his autopsy revealed that the bear absorbed about three or four grams of cocaine into his blood system, although it may have eaten more.”

“It’s enough to kill anybody,” (Alonso) told the paper.

Although the original “cocaine bear” never went on a murderous spree like his film counterpart, authorities in 1985 did worry that those seeking illicit drugs had either already pilfered from the various drug-laden parachutes hanging from trees or might get ideas about doing so.

Admitting “you just don’t know how much (Thornton) threw out,” Gary Garner, supervisor of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Gainesville regional drug enforcement office, wasn’t taking any chances.

“We’re not going to put out exactly where they were found,” Garner told the Constitution’s Priscilla Painton on Dec. 30. “We don’t want the woods full of people looking for cocaine.”

“Cocaine Bear,” the movie, is merely screenwriter Jimmy Warden’s “twisted fantasy of what I wish actually happened after the bear did all that cocaine,” he told Variety magazine.

The movie, though set in a small Georgia town, was shot in 2021 instead in Ireland, which like Georgia offers very generous film tax credits.

The CGI bear is the star of the film, but the film also boasts an ensemble cast of recognizable faces including Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Brooklynn Prince and one of the last appearances by the late Ray Liotta. Actress Elizabeth Banks directed and produced the film.

“Cocaine Bear” is projected to open this weekend north of $20 million in box office gross and should easily exceed its budget of $35 million. So far, critics are all over the map about the movie (a 51% Rotten Tomatoes score) and opening weekend viewers gave it a ho-hum B-minus average grade via Cinema Score.

These days, “Cocaine Bear” (in all his taxidermied glory) greets visitors at the KY for KY Store in the Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, where one snow globe souvenir describes him as “The Ultimate Party Animal.”

AJC entertainment reporter Rodney Ho contributed to this article.


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