Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 novel was a flop at the box office and received mixed reviews. It has since found an audience and achieved status as a cult classic. It’s a film that I’ve seen dozens of times in the past and, having owned various DVD versions, I was eager to check out the Blu-ray.
Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke, a journalist who’s sent to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Accompanied by his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Bencio del Toro) and vast quantities of intoxicants, coverage of the race becomes secondary to the trip itself.
Depp is fantastic as Raoul Duke / Hunter S Thompson. Having spent a considerable amount of time with Thompson, Depp perfectly captures the mannerisms and voice and delivers one of his best performances. As good as Depp is here, I’ve always preferred del Toro’s performance as Dr.Gonzo / Oscar Zeta Acosta, perhaps the less showy of the two roles.
Having packed on the weight in preparation for the role, del Toro bears a similarity to Acosta and is almost unrecognisable. He acts magnificently. The way he switches from comedy to menacing at the drop of the hat and delivers some absurd lines in such a matter of a fact way is absolutely brilliant. I watched The Wolfman a few days prior to this and was thinking a little bit of Dr. Gonzo madness would have improved the film no end.
In addition to the fantastic performances from the lead actors, there are great turns from the likes of Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter and Gilliam regular, Katherine Helmond, to name but a few.
Adapting Hunter S Thompson’s novel was never going to be an easy task, but it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better suited than Terry Gilliam. His fondness for surrealistic imagery goes some way to bring the spirit of the book and Ralph Steadman’s animations to life. The subtle differences in filming methods to show the effects of the different drugs being consumed by the protagonists is very effective. However, Gilliam came to the project fairly late in the day.
Numerous filmmakers were attached to the project and it looked as though Alex Cox was set to direct until a falling out with Thompson led to him leave the project. Thompson’s take on the matter can be seen in the documentary Breakfast With Hunter. Cox still got a writing credit on the project despite Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewriting the script when they came on board.
I’ve heard and read various complaints about the tone of the film and how it shifts drastically in the final third. This is something, that in my view, is the film’s greatest strength and is clearly a deliberate decision by the filmmakers to capture the various stages of drug trips and to convey the emotions that would accompany it.
The fast paced, almost cartoonish, first third, the slight signs of calm in the middle and the change to the dark grotesque nightmare are what make it a film as opposed to a series of cartoonish vignettes.
I think it’s safe to say that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas isn’t a film for everyone, but it’s one that’s clearly been made with a lot of love for the source material and effectively captures its message. As a result, it’s one of the finest book to movie adaptations released to date.
There are a couple of extras available. There’s a ‘Spotlight on Location’ documentary and an assortment of deleted scenes that last for about 10 minutes each and are both presented in standard definition. Basically, the same as what was on the first Region 1 DVD edition that I owned. This is an improvement over the previous Region 2 release that had no extras whatsoever, but it’s a shame that none of the wealth of extras available on the Region 1 Criterion edition are here. I can only guess that this is due to licensing.
In terms of Blu-ray exclusive content, you can connect to the Universal BD live channel and the disc is also D-Box compatible. So if you own a special seat it’ll rumble and shake in conjunction with what’s on screen. Sadly, I don’t own one of these wonderful contraptions so can’t comment on how good this is.
The improvement on the picture quality is immediately noticeable. All of the DVD versions that I’ve owned have suffered from average picture quality. For the most part, the picture quality is very clear and crisp. It does highlight some deficiencies with the effects from time to time, particularly with the lizards in the Mint Hotel. The carpet growing up a man’s leg and wall, in the scene prior to this, looks great though.
There are a few of things I did notice. When Duke is talking to Tobey Maguire’s hitchhiker early on in the film, there’s no noise when he hits the back of Gonzo’s seat with his beer can. Also, when they first check in to the Mint hotel upon arrival in Las Vegas, the picture jumps a lot more than the DVD version. I know this is intentional, but it works better on the DVD version. There’s also a faint black line that runs horizontally down the screen in the scene where Duke is taking the adrenal gland extract, something else that didn’t appear on the DVD version. I appreciate that these are minor faults, but these will be noticeable to those familiar with the film.
Sound-wise I think it’s safe to say that Fear And Loathing isn’t going to be the type of film to show off your setup. A lot of the mumbled dialogue is hard to pick up and there’s little in the way of surround sound activity. Dialogue, narration and the majority of the sound effects are mostly from the front speakers. There are moments when your system will be treated to a full workout, but these are few and far between. Still, it’s an improvement over the DVD versions.
Apart from the issues above, I’d say that this is well worth a purchase for fans of the film. The only thing holding me back from saying that this is the best version to own is the lack of extras. The massive improvement in the picture quality does make it a close call, though.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.