Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
By: Julian on July 28, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Criterion Collection (USA), Region 1, NTSC. 2:35:1 (16:9 enhancement). English DD 2.0, English DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1. 119 minutes
The Movie
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz
Screenplay: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox
Country: USA
External Links
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I'm a big admirer of Hunter S Thompson, a man whose iconoclasm and anarchist tendencies got him in trouble many a time. But the good Doctor (he bought his doctorate of Divinity mail-order from a Church) was not just a provocateur – he was a terrific journalist, and in 1971 he wrote what is undoubtedly his best work– the sublime Kerouacian Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was gonzo journalism operating at its very peak, and one of the most caustically funny books I've ever read.

Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas begins with a montage of sixties-era protests as the film's title emerges in a streak of crimson. Wham, bam – and we're into it, as Thompson's Great Red Shark – the author's sleek convertible – roars up a desert highway, destination: Vegas. Thompson (Johnny Depp), who is referred to by his nom de plume Raoul Duke in the novel and film, is on assignment to cover the Mint 500 motorcycle race in the titular location for Rolling Stone magazine, and Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), Duke's Chicano lawyer, accompanies him for the adventure. And who can forget the duo's famed arsenal of contraband – alcohol, barbiturates, narcotics and psychedelics of every description. However, the bike race would come secondary to Duke and Gonzo's ultimate goal, and the drugs were only there to facilitate the odyssey's true epiphanies – a quest to find the 'American Dream'.

A movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing was on the cards for some time, with Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone attached to the project at various stages. Finally, Terry Gilliam of Brazil and 12 Monkeys fame was slated to direct the picture with Depp and del Toro in the roles of Duke and Gonzo respectively. It was a daunting project to take on, though no doubt made easier by Thompson and Depp's close friendship, which began when the latter was holidaying in Aspen in 1995. Depp immersed himself in Hunter's life, studying the journalist while living in Thompson's basement for four months. Thompson himself had involvement in the picture, appearing in a cameo role and frequently visiting the sets. He described the finished product as 'a masterpiece'.

A bold claim to make, but there's no doubt the acting is what really made this labour-of-love a cinematic success, particularly by Depp. The man is sensational, certainly one of the best character actors around, and the resemblance (both in appearance and mannerism) to Thompson is startling. Del Toro is fittingly sleazy as Dr Gonzo (in real life, Oscar Zeta Acosta), and the supporting players – including Tobey Maguire as the hitchhiker, Christina Ricci as Lucy and Gary Busey as the cop – amply fill out the remaining scenery. Also of note is Nicola Pecorini's cinematography, inspired by Gilliam's desire to make Fear and Loathing simulate a drug trip from beginning to end. The film is fantastically shot, and Pecorini, a Milanese born cinematographer, went on to lens The Brothers Grimm and Tideland for Gilliam. Hunter's ether, LSD, mescaline, adrenochrome and amyl nitrate trips each came to visceral fruition in different ways, giving birth to some genuinely hysterical scenes.

Book-to-film adaptations characteristically don't hold a candle to their subject matter, but Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the closest I've ever seen a picture get. Tackling such a seminal literary work (and one that was long considered unfilmable) was an incredibly audacious move, and this is a thoroughly commendable job. There are times when, like the novel, Fear and Loathing is uproariously funny, and times when it's inherently downbeat as any concept of an 'American Dream' is squashed before our very eyes. Highly recommended.
Criterion has presented Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. It's clean and sharp. Can't ask for any more, really.
Three English audio tracks are provided – English Dolby 2.0, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1 – and they're all flawless. The music is a great collection of Vegas-y tracks and the end credits roll to the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash. It's a shame that Gilliam couldn't afford the $300, 000 for the rights to Sympathy for the Devil, an important piece in Thompson's book.
Extra Features
This was the first Criterion DVD I bought and I was thoroughly impressed.

There are three – yes, three – audio commentaries for the film. The first is with Gilliam, the second with producer Laila Nabulsi, Depp and del Toro, and the third with Nabulsi, Hunter S and his wife Anita. The commentary with Thompson is magnificent – the Doctor can occasionally be unintelligible in his deep-throated warble, but when we know what he's on about, the man is utterly engrossing. Also included on the first disc are three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Gilliam.

The second disc is divided into two parts – 'the film' and 'the source'. 'The film' gives us a collection of storyboards, production designs and a stills gallery, trailers and TV spots, and an overview of the writers' credit controversy, where the WGA put a spanner in the works when they wouldn't allow Tod Davies and Alex Cox's names be removed after their screenplay was scrapped by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. There's a fourteen-minute featurette where Depp reads out some of the letters Hunter has sent, but the novelty quickly wears off, even if it's fitting to see Johnny in a cloud of cigarette smoke in his swansong to Thompson. The highlight of this section, though, is the ten-minute featurette Hunter Goes To Hollywood, where we're treated to a 61-year-old Thompson, complete with hat and cigarette holder, taking a tour of the set and chatting to the main players.

For Hunter aficionados, the most interesting supplements are found in 'the source' section of this disc. First and foremost is a 50-minute documentary filmed by the BBC in 1978 titled Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, which gives an excellent overview of Thompson's works to that date, as well as footage of the man himself. There are some rare items on Oscar Zeta Acosta including a photo gallery, a seven-minute audio segment Thompson on Acosta and a thirty-minute clip of Acosta reading an excerpt of his book The Revolt of the Cockroach People. There's also a gallery of artwork by Ralph Steadman, Fear and Loathing's acclaimed illustrator.

Rounding off the package is a 28-page colour booklet with an essay by J Hoberman, an introduction to the Fear and Loathing book by Thompson, and some Hunter quotes. The discs are packaged in an oversized amary case with a clear plastic slipcase. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is number 175 in the Criterion Collection.

An absolutely faultless set.
The Verdict
Hunter fans: drop your guards and rejoice – this is a fantastic piece of filmmaking. Gilliam's direction is as manic as the novel itself, and Depp channels Thompson with incredible veracity. Criterion must also be commended for the exhaustive release they've given the film, and it's an essential item. I really can't recommend this enough.
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