Release Date(s)2023 (April 18, 2023)
Studio(s)Lord Miller/Brownstone/Jurassic Party Productions (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: D+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Presented, for your consideration, two true stories that are only tangentially related:
One day in September of 1985, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee was treated to a grisly sight when he looked out of his window and discovered the corpse of a skydiver lying in his driveway. The body was clad in combat fatigues, a bulletproof vest, and night-vision goggles. All that, plus it was carrying two loaded handguns, a stiletto, a well-stocked money belt, and survival supplies. Oh, and perhaps more importantly, 34 kilos of cocaine. The body belonged to one Andrew C. Thornton II, a particularly colorful character who had earned a Purple Heart during the Sixties as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, before eventually became a member of the Lexington Police Department’s narcotics squad during the Seventies. While protecting and serving the people of Kentucky, he also became a successful drug smuggler—although his criminal career was cut short that day in 1985 when he became a much less successful skydiver after getting tangled in his own chute. He had been on a drug run in a twin-engine Cessna 404, accompanied by his bodyguard/karate instructor Bill Leonard. When they overhead radio chatter that sounded like federal agents were on their tail, they decided to push their bags of cocaine out of the plane before bailing out themselves. Leonard landed safely, but Thornton didn’t. A few days later, U.S. Forest Service officers found three duffle bags in the woods containing 99 kilos of cocaine, but the rest of the 400 kilos that the Cessna reportedly carried was never fully recovered.
One day in December of 1985, officers with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found the body of a 175-pound black bear that had gotten to some of the missing cocaine before the authorities did. The bear managed to open 40 containers of the drug and consumed all of it, leaving only traces behind. Needless to say, it died on the spot. The corpse of the bear was later taxidermized and put on display, and while it may have been stolen at one point, it supposedly was rediscovered as a part of Waylon Jenning’s private collection in Las Vegas. (On the other hand, Waylon’s son Shooter denies that his father ever owned a stuffed bear.) The bear’s body is currently on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, an ignominious end for an inadvertent victim of the war on drugs.
Taken together, there’s plenty of interesting material contained in those two true stories that could be used to craft a genuinely fascinating feature film—and that’s not even including some of the bizarre ancillary stories surrounding what came to be known as the “Bluegrass Conspiracy.” A few weeks after Thornton’s body was discovered, a single-engine plane owned by Atlanta real estate developer David “Cowboy” Williams crashed, killing Williams, the pilot, and 15 other skydivers. The fuel tanks were contaminated by sugar and water, and while the plane had previously been grounded due to contamination concerns, the timing of the accident immediately created suspicions that it might have been sabotage by the drug smuggling operation. Williams and Thornton were known associates of each other, so the accident may not have been a coincidence. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and chronicling the events surrounding the demise of Andrew C. Thornton II could have made for a truly gripping feature film.
Instead, we got Cocaine Bear.
Cinematographer John Guleserian captured Cocaine Bear digitally at 4.5K resolution using ARRI ALEXA LF cameras with Arri Signature Prime lenses. Post-production work was completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. The fact that Cocaine Bear utilized a 4K DI certainly cries out for a 4K Ultra HD version, but Universal has elected to release it on 1080p Blu-ray only, at least as far as physical media is concerned. The image is still crisp and clear, even in 1080p, with beautifully refined textures on display. The lush scenery is exceptionally sharp, with every leaf of every tree being perfectly defined. (While Cocaine Bear is set in Georgia, the bulk of these gorgeous exteriors were actually shot in Wicklow county, Ireland.) The colors are equally well-defined, with strong saturation that never pushes past the point of oversaturation, and the contrast range is excellent. It’s a good encode, too, with not much in the way of noise or other compression artifacts to mar the experience. Whatever else can be said about Cocaine Bear, it looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
Primary Audio is offered in English 7.1 DTS-HD. Cocaine Bear was exhibited theatrically in Dolby Atmos, but Universal’s decision not to release a UHD means that they also didn’t include that mix here—like many studios, Universal generally doesn’t offer Atmos or DTS:X on standard Blu-ray. It’s a solid 7.1 mix, although there’s little doubt where the overhead channels would have been utilized for Atmos, such as a moment when the bear gets onto the roof of the ranger station. Still, this 7.1 mix is effective enough on its own, with plenty of surround engagement at all times, and there’s some prominent deep bass when it’s appropriate. The dialogue is always clear (for good or for ill), and Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is well-supported in the mix. Additional audio options include Spanish 7.1 DTS-HD, French 5.1 DTS, and English Descriptive Video Service, with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Universal’s Blu-ray release of Cocaine Bear is branded as a Maximum Rampage Edition, because, why wouldn’t it be? It’s a two-disc set that includes a DVD with a 480p copy of the film, a slipcover that matches the artwork on the case, and a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman
- Alternate Ending (:48)
- Gag Reel (1:54)
- Deleted & Extended Scenes (4:33, 3 in all)
- All Roads Lead to Cokey: The Making of Cocaine Bear (9:14)
- Unbearable Bloodbath: Dissecting the Kills (8:16)
- Doing Lines (4:00)
The commentary features director/producer Elizabeth Banks and producer Max Handelman. Banks is an enthusiastic filmmaker, and an equally enthusiastic speaker, so it’s a track that’s arguably better-paced than the movie itself. She does suggest going down the rabbit hole of reading about Andrew C. Thornton II, which unwittingly confirms that the real story is far more interesting that what they presented in the film. Banks and Handelman have plenty of good stories to tell about making the film, including developing the script with screenwriter Jimmy Warden, balancing the tone, working with the late Ray Liotta, and shooting the effects. They do unnecessarily explain a few of the jokes, and Handelman is guilty of making the standard but equally unnecessary warning about spoilers (although Banks corrects him on that score), but it’s still a commentary that’s well worth a listen, even if you’re not a fan of the film.
The rest of the extras are the usual EPK-style fluff, mixed with unused footage and bloopers. The Alternate Ending resurrects one of the characters who appeared to have died, promising that the hunt for the bear will continue. The Gag Reel is a pretty standard collection of flubbed lines and mugging for the camera. The Deleted & Extended Scenes consists primarily of unnecessary extensions that would have padded things out more than they already are, but there is a moment that establishes two characters who otherwise appear out of nowhere in the final cut. All Roads Lead to Cokey is a perfunctory making-of featurette, while Unbearable Bloodbath focuses narrowly on shooting the bear attacks, with an emphasis on the gore effects. Finally, Doing Lines features various members of the cast and crew performing mock-dramatic readings from the script.
Ordinarily, the lack of a 4K Ultra HD release for a new title like Cocaine Bear would be a disappointment, especially considering the fact that it appears to have been produced as a 4K DI. Yet like nearly everything else to do with the film, good enough is, well, good enough. There’s still plenty of life left in the Blu-ray format, and it’s more than adequate to give a film like Cocaine Bear the consideration that it deserves. Take that as you will.
- Stephen Bjork