Universal // 1998 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 2nd, 2010
"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning."
I've read several interviews with authors who express everything from consternation to hostility at the idea that fans of their books want movie adaptations. The thinking seems to be, "If my book was so perfect, why would you want to see it in a different medium? Are you too lazy to re-read the book and would rather have it acted out in front of you?" These questions are especially relevant for a book like Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Like the rest of Thompson's work, Fear and Loathing is a heady mixture of autobiography and fantasy stitched together by a master wordsmith who has a bone to pick with the blindness of contemporary culture. The book floated around for decades and was thought unfilmable, either for the drugs, the lack of traditional "plot," or the book's ultimate denunciation of The American Dream.
Then along came Terry Gilliam, mad prophet of the lone hero shrieking in the wilderness for redress of the world's grievances. Raoul Duke, with his journey from L.A. to Las Vegas and finally to the depths of the American Dream, is not so dissimilar from Sam Lowry in Brazil, the Baron in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or James Cole in 12 Monkeys. Gilliam boiled down the scripts currently making the rounds in Hollywood and turned it into a simple story of a man wandering around Las Vegas, which allowed him to keep many of the otherwise unconnected vignettes from the book. Gilliam's script also makes the intelligent decision to keep as much of Thompson's words as possible, and then Gilliam pairs them with his usually demented visuals.
All that would be for naught, however, without the perfect set of casting choices, especially in the lead roles. The previous attempt (Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as his attorney "Lazlo" in Where the Buffalo Roam) had been surprising successful, but that wasn't an adaptation of the great Fear and Loathing. No, Fear and Loathing would require something spectacular in the casting department, and Gilliam was lucky enough to get Johnny Depp to play Raoul and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. It was the perfect decisions because Johnny Depp was nearing the end of his decade-long quest to rid himself of the heartthrob baggage and Del Toro was an unknown quantity to most outside of his brilliant The Usual Suspects performance. Together they channel the twisted chemistry of the book and the real-life pair of Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta. The rest of the cast, from Gary Busey to a pre-Spider-man Tobey Maguire, are all perfectly cast as well, including Hunter S. Thompson himself in a wonderful little cameo.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has had an odd life on home video. It was initially released by Universal in a barebones DVD. Then Criterion got a hold of the rights and produced a lavish two-disc set which rivals their best work for both presentation and quality of extras. Despite the brevity of HD-DVD's lifespan, Fear and Loathing saw a release on that format as well before arriving on Blu-ray. Just on the level of presentation, the wait has been worth it: Fear and Loathing in hi-def is a thing of beauty. Detail is high, colors are spot-on, and grain is kept to appropriate levels throughout the film. The extra details give the more surreal moments of the film and extra "oomph" that makes them a treat to watch. The film's visuals are strong, but the words are ultimately what most people come to hear, and the DTS-HD track ensure that all of Thompson's mad ravings come through loud and clear, even when paired with the rock soundtrack that comprises most of the music in the film.
Where this release falls down like a writer on ether is the extras department. These are the same tired extras that Universal has been shopping around since that first DVD release. A few deleted scenes, and a 10-minute "On Location" featurette. These aren't bad, as far as they go, but there's no commentary with Gilliam, or Thompson, or Depp and Del Toro. There's no documentary or behind-the-scenes footage like the Criterion release has.
I love and highly recommend Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and there's no doubt in my mind that Blu-ray is the way to see the film. However, the Criterion release is strong enough in the extras department to make me think that fans should keep their old discs and maybe give this one a rental (or buy it if it's really cheap). Certainly the sound and video are a vast improvement over the standard def releases, but that Criterion release is just so darn packed.
Despite the lack of extras, this release doesn't take any guff from those swine. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
* French (Canadian)
* Spanish (Latin American)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* D-Box Enabled