FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).
Met with equal parts of horror and derision during its release, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's "unfilmable" novel of brain-fried, drug-drenched excess arrives on the screen in all of its hallucinogenic glory, courtesy of director Terry Gilliam. One of the most outrageously subversive studio releases of all time, it's also a nearly perfect evocation of the book and its twisted mindset...Set in 1971, Johnny Depp portrays outlaw journalist Raoul Duke, who's assigned to cover the Mint 400 desert motorcycle race, with Samoan attorney/pal Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) tagging along on a drive to Las Vegas, armed with a convertible full of powerful drugs. Of course, as we all know, somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, those drugs begin to take hold, while the pair deteriorates into dumb beasts. So prepare yourself for phantom bats, a hitchhiker who freaks out at their bad craziness, giant lizards filling their hotel's bar, covering a Las Vegas-based District Attorney's anti-drug conference, plus snorting raw ether and turned loose in the Bazooka Circus casino. Then again, all is not high times, particularly when Gonzo takes far too much acid and orders Duke to electrocute him in the bathtub during the climax of "White Rabbit." Successfully translating Thompson's cult-favorite novel to the screen, Gilliam not only captures the author's one-of-a-kind voice and episodes, but coats it all in an extreme, drug-drenched imagery which brings this Vegas vacation to all-to-vivid life. Beginning their trip as "a classic affirmation of everything right and true in the national character", this soon degrades into a kinetic assault on the senses, a eulogy to the lost optimism of the 60s, and a savage journey into the heart of American over-indulgence. There's also no shortage of dark laughs at the pair's confrontation with authority figures and tourists. Though littered with star cameos (Christina Ricci as a Barbra Streisand-obsessed teenager with a headful of acid, Ellen Barkin as a Gonzo-abused waitress, Gary Busey as a lonely highway patrolman), the screen belongs to the unrepentantly-deranged Depp and Del Toro. As Duke (a fictional representation of Thompson), the inventive Depp perfectly captures the author's speech patterns, body language, hair loss, and growing paranoia. Depp even accompanied Thompson on a book signing tour, in order to make his interpretation all the more accurate, and wore Thompson's actual clothing for much of the filming; while Thompson can be spotted in a 1965 flashback sequence, as an aging doppelganger. Meanwhile, Del Toro packed on a frightening girth for the role (based on Chicano activist Oscar Acosta) and brings an often lethal, decidedly incoherent edge to the road-trip. Together, they make a potent combo, beginning as a simple drug-indulging pair, but quickly showing the darker, more subversive shadings of each character--such as when Duke takes a massive dose of "adrenochrome" (culled from adrenaline glands of living human bodies), which sends him into a hideous, hallucinatory frenzy. No surprise, the film was condemned for its surface matter (the pigfuckers at the Disney-owned ABC TV-network refused to run commercials for the movie), which includes rampant destruction of property, partaking of highly dangerous drugs, and copious vomiting. At the heart of it all is its outstandingly-deranged cinematography and colorfully tacky production design, which actually transcends the Vegas experience with its Fellini-on-peyote visuals. Remarkably faithful to its source material and rambling about at its own unique pace, Gilliam might not have painted a pretty picture, but it's certainly a spectacular vision of unpredictable dementia and wicked satire.
© 1998 by Steven Puchalski.