Combustible Celluloid
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With: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Michael Jeter, Penn Jillette, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, Flea, Laraine Newman, Harry Dean Stanton, Tim Thomerson, Katherine Helmond, Verne Troyer
Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox, based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive extreme drug use and related bizarre behavior, strong language, and brief nudity
Running Time: 119
Date: 15/05/1998

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Great Gonzo

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As directed by Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys), this seemingly pointless celebration of bad behavior is also a hilarious and crazily visual comedy for adults already inducted into the Hunter S. Thompson cult. The movie sets up a bizarre, frantic pace and sustains it successfully for the entire running time. Johnny Depp stars as Hunter's alter ego, freelance journalist Raoul Duke, and Benicio Del Toro as Duke's friend and attorney, the crazed Samoan Dr. Gonzo. Both performances are played full-force with no room for timidity or second thought.

Together they travel to Las Vegas in 1971, where Duke has been assigned to cover a desert motorcycle race. But a drinking and drug binge causes him to miss most of the race. He tries to skip out on a trashed hotel room and an expensive bill when he learns that he has been assigned to another story, a district attorney/police convention, in another part of town. He blows this story too, due to another drinking and drug binge (although he manages to tape record most of his experience this time). In the end, he writes a book about the entire experience and what it meant in the grand scheme of things.

Gilliam's extraordinary camerawork -- as well as weird makeup and visual effects -- attempts to capture the feel of a real drug trip, as well as some imaginatively trashed hotel rooms afterward. (What is that brown liquid all over the floor?) In the lead role, Depp throws himself completely into Thompson's persona and delivers an amazing, hilarious performance. Del Toro is intense and rather frightening as the crazed Dr. Gonzo, and several recognizable faces (Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, Flea) turn up in cameos. It's definitely not for every taste, but those who appreciate something out of the ordinary are encouraged to try it.

The movie was badly mismarketed by Universal and almost completely misunderstood when it was released as a summer movie in 1998 (the same weekend as Godzilla). Like all good cult movies, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas calls to you. It demands that you watch it again and again, memorizing dialogue, laughing at the imaginatively ludicrous scenes, and just generally loving it, warts and all.

The Criterion Collection has come up with the strongest early contender for 2003's best DVD. The two-disc set finally raises the movie to its proper perspective. Get a load of this list: three commentary tracks, one from director Gilliam, one from Depp and Del Toro and one from Thompson himself; deleted scenes, a photo gallery, storyboards, brand-new footage of Depp reading correspondence from Thompson, an excerpt from a 1996 CD of the book, read by Jim Jarmusch, Maury Chaykin and Harry Dean Stanton, two short documentaries about Thompson in Hollywood, original artwork from Ralph Steadman and more. The booklet contains writings by Thompson and by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, who had enough foresight to appreciate the film when it was released.

One section explores the controversy over the screenwriting credit. Cult director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) still retains his writing credit on the film, even though none of his script made it to this film.

In 2011, Criterion released a superb Blu-Ray version, with most of the same extras.

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