The smell of acid in the morning: Is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Terry Gilliam’s Vietnam war movie?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 

(Terry Gilliam, 1998)

Psychedelia and satire mix like cocaine and dollar bills in Terry Gilliam’s white-knuckle trip Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s the perfect, kaleidoscopic adaptation of an “unfilmable” novel.


Hear me out: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a Vietnam war film. It’s Apocalypse Now on home turf. In both narratives, our all-American hero is given his papers and despatched down the river on a hallucinogenic mission of ever-increasing despair. As the trip escalates, the focus on duty wavers and infiltration gives way to introspective horror.

But instead of Martin Sheen as the soldier assassin, we’ve got Johnny Depp as the Gonzo journalist. Instead of Marlon Brando’s prophet of excess, Terry Gilliam’s film does one better for the apparent villain: America itself. Instead of faceless enemy cannon fodder, we’ve got a gallery of waiters, car parking attendants, hotel staff and other servants of capitalist society to rile at – not with bullets but with acid-tongued words and sordid actions. In this war film there are a great many casualties.

Hunter S Thompon’s vision of America unravels as if the novelist behind the immortal source material was a stranger invading a foreign land. There’s no traditional kinship to this country, no correlation to the moral values of its government, no cosy familiarity of shared heritage. And yet in all of his drug-induced schizophrenia, America’s poet laureate of depravity crafted a remarkably lucid and targeted vision that cuts through the haze like a sniper’s bullet soars over an opium field.

“And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro star in Terry Gilliam's 1998 film adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's counter-culture gonzo journalism novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Johnny Depp plays Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke to perfection, capturing the deranged nuances of a walking Ralph Steadman cartoon, but it’s Benicio Del Toro that steals the show as Thompson’s drug pushing monster of an attorney Dr. Gonzo.

The intellect and the excess double act is the screen’s finest since Withnail & I. But whereas Withnail was the exploration of the British stiff upper lip under duress, Gilliam’s kaleidoscopic vision of Fear and Loathing plays out like the American Dream’s descent into nightmare territory. It’s jagged punk in an era of rock and roll.

As we zip from drug binge to hangover it becomes apparent there isn’t going to be a typical plot structure in Fear and Loathing. But that doesn’t make Gilliam and Tony Grisoni’s script just a cacophony of chaos for the sake of it. There’s something deeper and perhaps even quixotic here behind Gilliam’s smokescreen – genuine pathos.

Gilliam’s Las Vegas is the inescapable rabbit hole that engulfs all sanity – a perfect macro representation of post-flower-power America or, indeed, Vietnam. Conventional character development in three acts is switched for character deterioration in one vortex. This is a story less of heroes and more of victims.

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro star in Terry Gilliam's 1998 film adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's counter-culture gonzo journalism novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Serving this trade-off requires a skilful leader who knows the ideal jaunty angles for tilting at windmills to provoke belly laughs and hangovers in the right order. Gilliam, who skewered bureaucracy in Brazil and weaved an unlikely urban fable with The Fisher King, is a master of cinematic contortion. He made a Vietnam war film right on the Las Vegas Strip.

The war rages on with Arrow Video’s wonderful Blu-ray treatment of the film. On this definitive disc, Fear and Loathing looks absolutely fantastic. It’s an essential upgrade from the DVD and old Blu-ray and, as per usual with Arrow, is as well stocked in the extra’s department as Duke’s galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers and laughers. I urge you to buy the ticket, take the ride…

2-DISC LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY CONTENTS

  • Two-disc edition featuring Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas in a new 4K restoration, and the documentary For No Good Reason about illustrator Ralph Steadman, featuring Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp
  • Limited edition packaging featuring iconic original art by Ralph Steadman
  • Limited edition hardbound book featuring new writing by Roger Keen, an essay on “Thompson on Film” by Dr. William Stephenson, a 1999 interview with Terry Gilliam by Ian Christie and original production notes
  • Six collectors’ postcards
  • Double-sided fold-out poster of the original theatrical one-sheet and a sketch by Terry Gilliam

DISC ONE – FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS

  • Brand new 4K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative supervised by Terry Gilliam
  • High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
  • Original 5.1 & 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New commentary by Terry Gilliam, moderated by Phil Stubbs
  • Savage: Finding The American Nightmare, a newly filmed appreciation by film historian Ian Christie
  • The Gonzo Papers, a newly filmed interview with producer Laila Nabulsi
    Grim Memories and Bad Flashbacks, an all-new interview with star Benicio del Toro
  • Ignore This Terrible Drug: The Art and Style of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an all-new featurette including interviews with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, production designer Alex McDowall, costume designer Julie Weiss and editor Lesley Walker
  • Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film, a 2006 documentary on the author featuring Depp, del Toro, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Murray, Sean Penn, John Cusack and others
  • Hunter Goes To Hollywood, archive footage of the author filming his cameo in the film
  • Four deleted scenes with new optional commentary by Gilliam, including the excised prologue A Dress Pattern
  • Spotlight on Location, an original promotional featurette featuring interviews with Gilliam, Depp and del Toro
  • Behind the scenes ‘B-roll’ footage and additional EPK interviews with Gilliam, Depp and del Toro
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spots
  • Extensive image galleries, including original production designs, storyboards and production stills

DISC TWO – FOR NO GOOD REASON (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)

  • High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
  • 5.1 & 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Short film Cherrywood Cannon
  • Ralph’s Art
  • Extended interviews with Terry Gilliam, Bruce Robinson and Richard E. Grant
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Trailer & Teasers
  • Image Galleries

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro star in Terry Gilliam's 1998 film adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's counter-culture gonzo journalism novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ian says:

    What an amazing review. Such an interesting and undeniably original take on the fear and loathing in Las Vegas film. Fantastic!

    Like

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