Still from Fear and Loathing in Las VegasFear and Loathing in Las Vegas
IT would be hard to think of a director better suited to bring Hunter S Thompson's psychedelic '70s bible Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen than Terry Gilliam. Well, unless you count the original director Alex Cox who alienated the producers and stars so much he was rapidly replaced by the Brazil genius. Nor is there any other way you could have filmed Thompson's counter-culture classic except in the freakadelic, fractured and fascinating way Gilliam has.
But in faithfully recapping Thompson's book, Gilliam's manic movie is also shackled by its symbolic source material. On paper, the Rolling Stone journalist's debauched drug binge while covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race on the outskirts of the gaming capital was a penetrating look into the abyss of an American Dream torn apart by Vietnam and the Age of Aquarius. On film, Thompson's very personal experiences emerge as little more than an episodic, rambling collection of surreal highs and lows even though they're brilliantly captured by Gilliam's lurid imagination.
Johnny Depp plays Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke and Benico Del Toro his attorney/drug dealer Dr Gonzo on the pharmaceutical freeway to the desert city. Once on the Golden Mile, they check into the tacky Mint Hotel, and start causing hallucinatory havoc as they drop acid, sniff cocaine and ether, guzzle large quantities of booze and gobble down uppers hidden in the trunk of their red Chevy convertible. As the carpet patterns creep and crawl on the floor, hotel personnel morph into weird animals and crazed gamblers turn into lounge lizards (courtesy of Rob Bottin), Duke and Gonzo trash their hotel suites along with themselves in an orgy of mind-expanding self-indulgence.
Initially Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is great fun. The junkie jargon, mescalin-fuelled flashbacks and wrecked hotel rooms depicting hideous memory landscapes, recreate the LSD experience perfectly. But it finally becomes too much with the visual and verbal excesses teetering on the boring and exhausting. Like a bad trip, you really can't wait for it to stop. Unlike the book, nothing in Gilliam's pop-art gross-out has anything more than superficial resonance either. You're none the wiser at the end of it why Thompson's disaffected youth manual quite took the world by storm with its 'new journalism' stance. Nor does the vaguely moralistic wrap-up, calling Timothy Leary's '60 sermons naïve and overly romantic, sit too well with the basic assaulting nature of the piece (filmed incidentally by Nicola Pecorini, Dario Argento's one-time Steadicam operator).
However, Depp and Del Toro are well nigh wonderful as the drug culture's Little and Large. Depp, in yet another edgy career choice, captures Thompson's peculiar mannerisms to a T and stalks his neon jungle with jittery aplomb, while Del Toro goes bananas with style and vomits like a trooper. Thompson devotees and Gilliam admirers will really want to like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it proves a hard slog to do so. Many people thought Thompson's dissipated observations on a decayed decade were virtually unfilmable and conventional wisdom seems to have won out again. (Starburst rating: 6)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas picture copyright Universal

"Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are well nigh wonderful as the drug culture’s Little and Large"
Starburst footer