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[whitespace] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Taking a Gamble: Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) braves the neon hell of Las Vegas in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo classic.

Terry Gilliam gives soul to 'Fear'

By Richard von Busack

FAITHFUL TO A FAULT, Terry Gilliam's film version of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a true oddity. It's a relic given the classic treatment, complete with heavy narration. The art of morphing and creature building has come so far that Gilliam can visualize Thompson's feverish writing. The problem is that the spirit of the much-plagiarized book has been hovering over the pop culture for years. (Would there be a Beavis & Butt-head if it hadn't been for Thompson?) The book records a long weekend in 1971 in Las Vegas with a suitcase full of drugs. Thompson, hiding under the nom de guerre Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), has two stories to cover: an off-road motorcycle race and a convention of drug-enforcement agents. Out of his mind on psychedelics, he decides to write about his own hallucinations and fantasies of persecution instead. As it happened, this tactic made for much more interesting reading than an ordinary Sports Illustrated article about dirt bikers--or for that matter, a balanced, unbiased, dull-gray daily newspaper-style piece about a narc convention.

Depp, who is a riot, plays Thompson as a white explorer in a savage land, with a pith helmet-like cap. Sweating, he mutters, "My blood is too thick for Nevada." Depp has a cartoonish, pussy-footing walk he probably picked up from Ralph Steadman's illustrations for Thompson's magazine pieces. For a prop, Depp has a cigarette holder that punctuates his skull's grimace when the drugs hit him. As Thompson's companion in debauchery, Dr. Gonzo, Benicio Del Toro grew a belly and a scraggly mustache. At times, the interplay between Gonzo--a screaming, drug-addled menace--and the low-key Thompson approaches the pitch and hilarity of the duet of paranoids in Bruce Robinson's 1987 cult favorite Withnail & I. But there isn't as much action; from episode to episode, the movie is all atmosphere and no plot. Though Gilliam stocks the pond with monsters, there's no confrontation between Thompson and these Las Vegas beasts. The squares that Thompson hustles--uninventively, too--don't hustle him back, and the freak-show sets (such as Gilliam's amusingly nasty parody of Circus Circus) go beyond satire to become a sort of visual tantrum.

Despite the repellent aspects, Gilliam has given the movie soul with an inspired finish. It's a monologue in a fearfully trashed hotel room about how psychedelics sabotaged the "love generation" by exposing to them the worm within them. (That was the flaw in LSD: a good personality is a terrible thing to dissolve.) The years have clarified Thompson's sometimes careless prose. The portions of the story that Thompson had claimed were ugly--as hyperbole, I'd thought--are exposed as ugly with a capital "U." A scene in which Dr. Gonzo hassles a waitress (Ellen Barkin) in a cafe, is as peerlessly ugly, as surreally pessimistic, as anything Gilliam has filmed. It's uglier than the ugly stuff in Brazil, Gilliam exhibits the cruelty recorded in the book--and adds to it his own loathing of the human race.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (R; 119 min.), directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox and Gilliam, photographed by Nicola Pecorini and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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