"No point mentioning the bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough."
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is one of the more literal film adaptations in recent memory. The film relies almost exclusively on Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's original words, both in dialogue scenes and in voice-over. Some lines are relocated from sequences in the book left out of the film, but even extended blocks of dialogue are taken almost verbatim from the source novel, one of the defining works of the 60s… though it was written in 1971.
The look of the film, in turn, is clearly inspired by the psychedelic illustrations of Ralph Steadman which accompanied Thompson's words (first published in "Rolling Stone" then later printed as a short novel). One of the first images is an off-kilter shot through the windshield of the two main characters, a partial recreation of one of Steadman's best-known drawings from the book. Director Terry Gilliam repeatedly uses fish-eye lenses to capture the distorted perspective of Steadman's visions, and as the obvious visual expression of Thompson's drug-fueled delusions.
Furthermore, Johnny Depp, a friend of Thompson, opted for a directly mimetic performance, aping the author's numerous twitches and spasms, and his clipped grunting diction. Some critics felt Depp went too far over the top, but a glimpse of the real Thompson (if there is such a thing) on the extras on this Criterion disc suggest that Depp was, if anything, restrained. He is certainly an ocean of calm compared to Benicio Del Toro, who plays the paranoid Samoan Dr. Gonzo, a character inspired by Thompson's companion on the original Vegas trip Oscar Zeta Acosta, a lawyer and leader of the Chicano or "Brown Pride" movement. The real Acosta died under mysterious circumstances in 1974 so we don't have a point of comparison for Del Toro's performance, but it's difficult to envision any human being, even one described by Thompson as "a high powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production," who could sustain the splenetic fury (sometimes smoldering, more often bubbling over) of Del Toro's force majeure Gonzo.
Was this literal-minded approach a failure of imagination? Or perhaps a by-product of the film's harried production as Gilliam took over the reins late in the game after director Alex Cox departed over "creative differences?" I would argue that it was, quite simply, the right choice for the long-fulminating adaptation of a "difficult" book.
Thompson's Gonzo journalism (a gimmicky label perhaps, but one that has stuck for good reason) requires full immersion and is linked indelibly to a single perspective and a single voice, that of Thompson, by way of his fictional avatar Raoul Duke. The Gonzo reporter not only becomes part of the story, he eclipses it completely in favor of more idiosyncratic pursuits. Thompson was hired by "Sports Illustrated" to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, but he abandons it almost the instant it begins. The real story occurs in their hotel room and in their journeys through the seedier, or perhaps I should say sadder, areas of the Strip, the "vortex of the American Dream," where Debbie Reynolds, bull dykes with pasties, and ravenous chimpanzees co-exist with a natural ease not found in a fractured culture which simultaneously produced Grace Slick and Richard Nixon. What was originally meant to be a 250-word photo caption for "Sports Illustrated" became a melancholy retrospective of the dashed hopes of 60s counter-culture and an iconic novel.
Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni have made a few changes, most notably adding a layer of romanticism to the film by portraying Thompson as typing the book on the spot in his Vegas hotel room during the rare longueurs when Dr. Gonzo isn't begging to be electrocuted by a tape recorder blasting "White Rabbit." The film also amplifies the "buddy movie" aspect of the story: two guys and a classic car (or two) on the most quintessentially American of all benders ("Two good old boys in a fire-apple red convertible. Stoned. Ripped. Twisted. Good people.") Some of the biting political satire is lost with Nixon, Dr. Thompson's bête noir, reduced to a whirling disembodied head. But Gilliam's main purpose is to reproduce the immersive qualities of this Gonzo trip as best as the medium will allow and I think he succeeds quite admirably. Being a Gonzo visualist himself, Gilliam is such a natural choice it's hard to believe he wasn't on the project from the start (he was asked at one point many years ago, but declined.)
It is, at the very least, a beautiful cinematic showcase for Thompson at the peak of his writing skills. Who could improve on the good doctor's description of an ether binge? Ether "makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel… total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue – severance of all connection between the body and the brain." The film also feeds back into the novel. Reading "Fear and Loathing" after watching the movie, I can't help but hear the words as spat out by Depp (as Duke as Thompson) and long passages are completely transformed by the experience.
"Fear and Loathing" was not well-received on its release and while it has achieved a minor cult status since, it hasn't invited much critical reconsideration in the interim. The film has its warts – the lounge lizard scene is too hokey and the numerous celebrity cameos grow tiresome – but I find it improves with each viewing. I've watched it five times now and haven't been bored for a minute, and I laugh harder each time. Perhaps "Fear and Loathing" shouldn't go down so smoothly. It isn't quite the "Savage Journey" of the book's subtitle, more of an "Excellent Adventure." But armed to its fangs with Thompson's hard scrabble words, it's still got plenty of firepower. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's almost intimidating to watch the more hallucinatory sequences in the film in high-def because they become a little too (sur)real. The 2003 SD release was a strong one, but the 1080p transfer is absolutely sparkling with rich image detail – it just pops off the screen. The colors aren't quite as vibrant – the neon of Vegas looks somewhat muted – but this is an excellent high-def transfer.
The Blu-Ray is presented with both DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 options. Criterion lists "2.0 Surround" on the back of the Blu-Ray case with "an optional 5.1 mix" and it's clear that 2.0 is their preferred choice for "Fear and Loathing." I am not enough of an audiophile to judge which mix is "superior," but I'll stick with the 2.0 since that's Criterion's choice. The film is packed to the gills with music and several sequences feature pretty intricate, multi-layered sound effects, and the lossless audio treatment (I'm talking 2.0 here) treats them marvelously. This is a very lively mix with an energetic feel that enhances the film quite a bit. And the songs sound great. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and may be necessary a few times when the characters become somewhat less than coherent.
All of the extra features are imported from the original 2003 SD release.
Few Criterion releases have ever been stacked with such an impressive array of extras as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
For starters there are three full-length commentary tracks, the first with Terry Gilliam, and the second with Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi. I have sampled snippets of both of these tracks and found them interesting, and I will likely explore them deeper at some point.
On the other hand, I have listened to the third commentary track three times in its entirety now and suspect I will take a fourth trip through before I get to either of the first two tracks. The most memorable commentary track in the history of the Criterion Collection was recorded in 2002 and features author Hunter S. Thompson fully in character (Is he Thompson? Is he Duke? Is there still a difference?) Abetted by his personal assistant and by producer Laila Nabulsi, Thompson holds court on the film, the "real" Vegas trip that started it all, and a host of other subjects. This track offers evidence of the fabulous entertainer and raconteur that Thompson was as well as an example of the way in which he had, by 2002 (and well before), been eclipsed by his own caricature. There is both genius and a pathetic quality to his screeching, hooting, howling and cursing, and listening to it now, after his suicide in 2005, the latter quality seems more prominent. Still, it's an extraordinary recording, a meta- of a meta- as we listen to 2002 Thompson play-acting what is left of 2002 Raoul Duke while watching Johnny Depp's 1998 interpretation of the 1971 Thompson by way of 1971 Duke. It's bat country, all right. And for fans of Thompson, it's something to be treasured.
The rest of the extras are divided into two categories: The Film and The Source.
This section starts with 3 Deleted Scenes (10 min total) along with a gallery of Storyboards (by Gilliam) along with galleries of Production Designs and Set Photographs.
Depp reads a sample of some of his correspondence with Thompson (14 min.)
"Hunter Goes to Hollywood" (11 min, dir. Wayne Ewing) is a short feature showing Thompson on set for a few days of shooting of "Fear and Loathing," particularly during the scene in which he appears (as "himself" from the late 60s, as seen by his 1971 self played by Depp and… hell, man, that's heavy!)
The film's tortured production history is discussed in "Not the Screenplay" (17 min), an audio feature with Terry Gilliam, Laila Nabulsi and screenwriter Tony Grisoni. Once director Alex Cox departed the film over "creative differences," the project was consigned to bureaucratic hell with the Writer's Guild in a Byzantine process to determine who should get credit for the screenplays. Eventually almost everyone (except Nabulsi) did. The story is an interesting one, and well worth listening to. This section also includes the 1-minute short film "A Dress Pattern," a snarky skit shot by Gilliam about this whole process.
Finally, "A Study in Marketing" offers a Trailer and seven U.S. TV spots. The Trailer (as well as "A Dress Pattern" have optional commentary by Gilliam.
A section dedicated to Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real-life Dr. Gonzo, includes an autobiographical photo essay by his son Marco, and a 1974 video recording of Acosta reading an excerpt from his book "Revolt of the Cockroach People." Additionally, Thompson (recording in 2002) reads from his introduction to the 1989 re-release of Acosta's books (7 min., audio only).
"Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard" (7 min.) is an audio recording of a "book on tape" style performance of "Fear and Loathing" with Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin providing some of the voice-work. After this film, nobody other than Depp sounds right speaking for/as Thompson, though.
A Gallery of approximately 60 drawings by Ralph Steadman is also included, and well worth sorting through since they're so integral to the "Fear and Loathing" experience.
Saving the best for last, we also get "‘Fear and Loathing' on the Road to Hollywood" (50 min.), a 1978 BBC program featuring the very sedate Ralph Steadman and the somewhat less than sedate (but not quite Gonzo) Thompson on a trip to Hollywood for what I assume was pre-production on the film "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), in which Bill Murray played Thompson. The documentary meanders quite a bit though, and all for the best, as Thompson mounts an ersatz campaign to re-elect Nixon in 1980 and plans his funeral. A great feature.
The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic J. Hoberman, a lengthy essay by Thompson taken from 1979's "The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1," and a short bit of advice from Thompson on the proper way to read Gonzo journalism.
I suspect my fondness for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is disproportionate to its cinematic achievements. But then again, why should I suspect that? Am I being paranoid? The weasels are closing in. I can smell the ugly brutes. That's right. Music!
"Fear and Loathing" is one of the best packages Criterion has ever produced. It was obviously a labor of love by fans of Thompson and the book (and of Gilliam, no doubt, who also received an elaborate Criterion treatment for "Brazil"). It is worth owning simply for the commentary track by Thompson, more poignant now that he is dead. It was also released on Blu-Ray by Universal in 2010 in a transfer that was highly regarded, but the extras on the Criterion make this the vastly preferable choice. And I believe the Blu-Ray upgrade is worth it.