Based on the book by the same name, Terry Gilliam's 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompsons classic book, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas really had no right to turn out to be such a great movie. Anyone who has read Thompson's book knows that his style doesn't really lend itself to filming but Gilliam really managed to capture on film the spirit of lunacy that makes the source material such a fantastic read.
The movie follows Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), a character very obviously inspired by Thompson himself, a sports journalist sent to cover a motorcycle race taking place in Nevada. His task is pretty simple: he's to go there, watch the race, and come back with an article. What happens, however, is that Raoul hooks up with his Samoan lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and the duo use the advance that the magazine paid Duke to purchase as many drugs and as much booze as they can find. They throw it all in the back of the good doctor's convertible, the Red Shark, and hit the road in search of the American Dream. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire), deal with the a highway cop (Gary Busey), run into other reporters and try to figure out just what exactly the American Dream really is.
While Bill Murray did a fine job in his own right for the first big screen take on Thompson's exploits in 1980's Where The Buffalo Roam, it's Johnny Depp who really provides the definitive cinematic version of the late author and journalist (Thompson committed suicide in 2005). He took a lot of time to prepare for the role, even going so far as to drive around in Thompson's own car (Interestingly enough, Thompson, driving Depp's car, took that time to drive around with a woman named Heidi and write an article about his experiences in Hollywood). Having spent a few months with Thompson before filming started, it's great to see how he nails the facial ticks, the mannerisms, the speech patterns and the physical characteristics to provide a pretty convincing interpretation of the man, playing the role with an appropriately wide-eyed and perpetually stoned demeanor. His camaraderie with Del Toro's Dr. Gonzo makes for some fantastic back and forth dialogue, many of which takes on acid tinged surrealism (perfectly rendered visual by the film's odd camera angles and visual distortions), often times to very comedic effect. If you've ever spent any time on hallucinogenic or around those who have ingested them, you'll walk away pretty impressed with just how good these two are with this material. Supporting performances from the aforementioned Maguide and Busey are welcome additions to the cast, as are bit parts played by Ellen Barkin, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Harry Dean Stanton, and even Lyle Lovett are fun (Thompson has a small cameo at the air show scene - be sure to note Depp's narration at this point!) but it's Depp and Del Toro that you'll remember when the end credits role.
This was a project that took some time to get completed. There were plenty of fairly infamous preproduction problems and a lot of back and forth issues on casting (at one point Jack Nicholson was meant to play Depp's role alongside Marlon Brando in Del Toro's part - imagine that!) until Thompson himself declared that Depp was the perfect actor to play him. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both attempted to get the picture made, but neither succeed. Alex Cox, of Repo Man and Sid And Nancy, was originally supposed to direct but Gilliam wound up replacing him and doing considerable rewriting on the script before shooting and once shooting did begin, the film soon found itself over budget. The fact that the movie finally did get made is a minor miracle in and of itself, and the fact that it turned out to be so damned good was an even bigger surprise to many familiar with the book and its messy cinematic journey.
The film's detractors often state that there's no point to the movie, but that's exactly the point of the whole thing. Let yourself get taken in by the insanity of it all, by the fantastic performances, the stunning camera work, the great soundtrack and the beautiful art direction and go along for the ride. Sometimes you don't need reason outside of wanting to have some fun, and if ever there was a movie that encapsulated that ideology, this is it. Like the book that this is based on, it's a look at excess, about abuse, about over doing it and then doing it some more and flipping everyone off along the way. Like the drugs ingested in copious amounts by the central characters, the film is an escape, a trip, literally and figuratively when you take into account the miles the pair travel, to Las Vegas, the very heart of American excess manifested in the glitz, glamour and neon of the city.
Gilliam's direction is as strong here as it is anywhere else. His knack for odd set pieces and strange humor make him a good fit for the material and his obvious love and respect for the source material , obvious from nods to Ralph Steadman and his accuracy in portraying Thompson's material as accurately as possible, prove he was the right man for the job. At two hours in length the film never comes close to overstaying its welcome, as it moves at a good pace and it's interesting, funny, and at times frightening enough to keep hold of your attention from start to finish.
The2.35.1 VC-1 encoded 1080p high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc is pretty impressive and shows a vast improvement over previous domestic standard definition releases in every way possible. Colors are stronger, bolder and more natural - you'll definitely notice this once Depp and Del Toro start doing their thing in Vegas - and the blacks are nice and strong. The image is smooth without looking artificial or over-processed while skin tones look detailed and natural. The picture has a lot of texture to it, from the dusty outdoor scenes that occur out in the desert to the brash, gaudy interiors of hotels and casinos you can make out the background items and production details that really add to the film's look and feel. Skin tones are strong, facial close ups show great depth and clarity and aside from some really minor specs here and there, there's not much to complain about at all as Universal has afforded this release a very good transfer indeed.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas sounds excellent thanks to the English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc. The levels are all properly balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to note. Surround activity is not quite a constant but it's close to it. The scenes that take place inside the casino demonstrate a lot of interesting detailed ambient background noise while the scenes that take place out on the open road has a nice sort of distant quality to them. Dialogue is always clear, despite Depp's in-character muttering and mumbling, and bass response stays tight and pretty bouncy throughout playback. A European French language DTS 5.1 Surround Sound track is also included, while subtitles are provided in English SDH, French Canadian, Latin American Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian.
Extras are unfortunately very slim on this release, meaning if you've got the excellent Criterion Collection package you're going to want to hold onto it for that reason. There really isn't a whole lot here, just a short collection of deleted scenes (11:39) and a brief featurette called Spotlight On Location (10:35), both of which are presented in standard definition. Also included are some basic menus that follow Universal's formula and which emerge from the side of the screen. The Blu-ray disc is Blu-ray Live enabled, allowing you to go online and access more content, and it's also D-Box Motion Code enabled.
It's a shame that more effort wasn't put into the extras on this release as the audio and video quality are both excellent. As such, fans of the film will probably want to own this and the Criterion SD release for the extras that their release contains. That said, if you only care about the movie itself, this Blu-ray release is the way to go. The transfer is very strong, the audio is excellent and the film itself still plays incredibly well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.