The Johnny Depp Archive

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Gary Busey, Tobey Maguire

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Rating: 1 2 3

'It's fun to take a trip. put acid in your veins'

1000 Homo DJs, Supernaught
Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro take a trip in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

On the whole, drug movies tend to fall into one of two categories. First we have the cautionary tale (think Drugstore Cowboy, The Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting) in which gorgeous images of heroin heaven featuring sun-drenched poppy fields and Lou Reed songs are swiftly undercut by scenes of such squalor, misery, despair and degradation it's enough to put you off narcotics for life. Then we have the drug film that simply wishes to celebrate the wonderful world of altered states. Easy Rider? Born to be wild about drugs. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Oh yes.

Based on Hunter S Thompson's seminal coked up classic novel (yes, it is based on the author's own experiences; no, I haven't actually read it), the film tells the twisted tale of junkie journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) as he hits to highway from LA to Las Vegas to cover a motorcross race (or something) in the company of his seriously psychotic attorney, Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro). High on a literally mind-bending connossieur's cocktail of uppers, downers and everything in between, the raddled pair embark upon the trip of a lifetime (in all sense and nonsense of the word).

Bar crawling... Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo drink up

'This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs,' Duke observes in a deadpan voiceover that sounds like the Fonz narrating a gumshoe B-movie. And he's right as well. Crazy, chaotic, tawdry and Technicolor, Vegas is a surreal 1960s neon nightmare - and that's before the drugs kick in. Next thing we know, giant bats are swooping across the desert sands, enormous reptiles in Hawaiian shirts are crawling the bars of Vegas's swankiest hotels and The Shining style carpets are coming alive. But then cross the hallucinatory prose of Hunter S Thompson with the mad mind of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam and you don't expect to get tea with the vicar.

Johnny Depp as rubber legged Raoul Duke

Johnny Depp, a self-confessed Thompson fan, revels in the role of Raoul Duke, throwing himself heart and soul into recreating the infamous writer's voice, gait and mannerisms (the time Depp spent with Thompson in order to learn the ways of the master almost broke him - and Johnny ain't exactly an angel.) From the bandy rubber legs in knee high white socks to the manic fluttering hand gestures, the bug eyes rolling crazily behind huge yellow-tinted sunglasses, highly unflattering domed bald pate and permanently crumpled tab hanging perilously from a cigarette holder clamped in the corner of the mouth, it's a brilliant piece of caricature: physical, visceral, cerebral, completely over the top and wonderfully entertaining to watch.

Benicio Del Toro piles on the pounds to play the fat, fuzzy haired Dr Gonzo, a man so frantically bonkers he makes Duke seem almost level-headed and responsible. Erratic, unpredictable and alternatively meditative and scarily violent, he's the kind of bloke you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of - or indeed get in a car with...

In addition to star turns by the central characters, the film is littered with a colourful assortment of cameo appearances by actors as diverse as Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Gary Busey and Tobey Maguire (who's hilarious as a hapless hitchhiker who really wishes he'd stayed safely by the roadside).

Fabulously fast, frenetic and funny, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also, inevitably given the subject matter, extremely confusing. Vast chunks of drug-fuelled dialogue are pretty much indecipherable and the surreal plot (if you can call it that) makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most of the time it doesn't matter, but it's also hard to feel any emotional involvement with characters so ludicrously larger than life and crazily cartoonish, and occasionally you do find yourself losing patience with the whole thing. However, as a late '60s period piece it's fantastic, as bright and brash and brilliantly coiffeured as a John Waters movie - Hairspray meets The Naked Lunch. So don't bother trying to make sense of the plot - just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a trip.

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