When I first saw the film in 1998, that's what I did.
But Criterion's decision to release the film as a luxe two-DVD set made me give the movie another look. I haven't totally changed my mind, but I now appreciate the film enough to have at least gotten some pleasure out of the experience.
For the uninitiated, Thompson is known almost exclusively for his contribution to a field he dubbed gonzo journalism. His exploits are captured in numerous magazine stories and books, often titled "Fear and Loathing" in some place. His Vegas excursion -- where he is assigned to cover a huge motorcycle race -- is one of his best known stories. Vegas of course offers plenty to fear and loathe, making it the perfect spot for one of Thompson's trademark adventures.
In this case, the motorcycle rally is beside the point. Thompson alter-ego Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney (Benicio Del Toro) head to Vegas in a giant red convertible packed to bursting with all manner of drugs. The wackiness starts straight away: Duke sees animated bats attacking the car as they head across the desert. In Vegas, the floor crawls up people's legs. Duke's narrative voice-over and his on-screen persona swap dialogue willy-nilly. Del Toro's "Dr. Gonzo" (ahem) prefaces everything with a disclaimer: "As your attorney I advise you to rent a large car with no top." Gilliam uses trick photography to give you the full effect: Some of this is really banal, like the slide-show strobe effect, Dutch angles, and odd long shots. But much of it is old-school Gilliam, putting you right in the action with the monsters which everyone in Vegas seems to turn into. It's all meant to make you feel like you've been sucking down peyote and ether all day long.
In other words: It's crazy. Gilliam has made a gonzo film meant to get you in the rumble seat, riding along with Duke and the doctor. Admittedly, their adventure peters out after the novelty of trashing hotel rooms and spotting celebrity cameos wears off (this happens at about the halfway mark). By then, Fear and Loathing has gone over the edge, losing us in its bid to become just another drug movie, only one made Gilliam style.
DVD supplements include three commentary tracks (Jesus!) from Gilliam; producer Laila Nabulsi, Depp, and Del Toro; and the man himself: Thompson as semi-interviewed by Nabulsi. Gilliam and Thompson have all the good dirt of course, but to some degree all three commentaries are worth listening to. Deleted scenes, storyboards, correspondence between Depp and Thompson, footage of Thompson's visit to the set and cameo in the film, and varous other errata -- including a commentary about the little-known dispute over the writing credits for the film.
I don't normally think much about packaging and menus, but I have to say that Fear and Loathing has one of the most impressive exteriors I've encountered on a DVD. An airbrushed, transparent plastic case holds the actual DVD set, which itself includes a couple of essays from Thompson and some overblown Thompson historian (who uses words like mise-en-scene) who Hunter would probably castrate if he got the chance. Even the DVD menu is a curiosity: Ralph Steadman is videotaped (arms only) spelling out the title of the film in his trademark neo-gonzo illustrative style. Kooky. Gonzo.
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd May 1998
Box Office Worldwide: $10.7M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%
Fresh: 32 Rotten: 33
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo / Oscar Z. Acosta, Tobey Maguire as Hitchhiker, Christina Ricci as Lucy, Ellen Barkin as Waitress at North Star Cafe, Gary Busey as Highway Patrolman, Cameron Diaz as Blonde TV Reporter, Mark Harmon as Magazine Reporter at Mint 400, Katherine Helmond as Desk Clerk at Mint Hotel, Michael Jeter as Ron Bumquist, Penn Jillette as Carnie Talker, Craig Bierko as Lacerda, Lyle Lovett as Road Person, Laraine Newman as Frog-Eyed Woman, Harry Dean Stanton as Judge, Tim Thomerson as Hoodlum, Michael Peter Balzary as Hippie/Musician, Christopher Meloni as Sven, Flamingo Hotel Clerk, Troy Evans as Police Chief, Debbie Reynolds as Herself (voice), Jenette Goldstein as Alice the Maid, Verne Troyer as Wee Waiter, Gregory Itzin as Mint Hotel Clerk
Also starring: Michael Lee Gogin, Larry Cedar, Brian Le Baron, Michael Warwick, Steve Schirripa, Wil Blount, Ben Yeagar, Christopher Callen, Ben Van Der Veen, Flea, Alex Craig Mann, Patrick Cassavetti, Laila Nabulsi, Stephen Nemeth, Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox
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