There’s a scene in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ where Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) – thinly fictionalised versions of Hunter S Thompson and Samoan attorney Oscar Acosta – are driving through the neon-lit artifice of Las Vegas in a convertible. They pull up next to a car full of straight-laced, middle-aged, middle-class white people (let’s call them ‘squares’ for short). Duke is hunched over the steering wheel, under the influence of just about every narcotic substance known to mankind; Dr Gonzo is hanging out the window, whining and blubbering pathetically, his moustache and the side of the car pebble-dashed with vomit.
The squares try heroically to ignore him. Then Dr Gonzo addresses them directly: “You folks wanna buy some heroin? God damn it, I’m serious. All I’m trying to sell you is some pure fucking smack. This is the real stuff. You won’t get hooked. I just got back from Vietnam ... I wanna sell you some pure fucking smack ... puuuuure ... fuuuuuuck ...”
One of them snaps: “God damn it, you bastards!” he yells, hammering on the car window with his fist. “Pull over! I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.”
Which was pretty much how the critics reacted when ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was originally released in 1998. “Simply unwatchable” opined Mike Clarke in USA Today and he wasn’t alone in that opinion. The majority of the film-going public didn’t even have an opinion – ‘F&L in LV’ did about $10 million at the American box office, earning back just over half of its budget.
I saw it on the big screen back in ’98 and loved it. Bought the video – loved it. Wore the VHS out and bought the DVD – still love it. And yet most people I talk to haven’t seen it; many have never heard of it. It came as pleasant and long-awaited validation, when I started the new job a few weeks ago, to find that one of my colleagues had not only seen the film but loves it wholeheartedly, and we had a grand time comparing our favourite scenes.
‘F&L in LV’ is zonked-out, screwed-up film-making with an emphasis on self-destructive behaviour, illicit substances and the over-consumption thereof. Politically incorrect? Hell, yeah. Irresponsible? Probably, but who’s counting? Not me. There’s a case to be made that we need a few more films to be irresponsible and politically incorrect – otherwise cinema, as with any art form that’s not given a thorough shaking up every so often, stagnates.
‘F&L in LV’ sets out its stall in the first scene, Duke and Dr Gonzo cutting through the desert in a big open-top car with fins and whitewall tyres and a flame red paint job. They’re on the outskirts of Barstow and the drugs have just kicked in. “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers and laughers,” Duke enumerates (Depp’s pitch-perfect voiceover is one of the chief joys of the film). “Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.”
By this time the pair have hallucinated a sky full of attacking bats. It gets worse: checking into a plush hotel, Duke’s base of operations while he ostensibly covers a motorcycle race in the desert, the psychedelically patterned carpet comes bleeding to life. A lounge full of bloated gamblers turns into a rutting grotesquery of giant lizards.
It gets worse: Duke and Dr Gonzo freak out, run up epic room service bills, destroy said hotel rooms, skip paying for both, damage cars, terrorize the innocent, insult authority, brandish weapons, rail against a government and a country going to hell, and merrily drink, snort and in any way possible ingest everything they can get their hands on, all the while encountering any number of other oddballs from an underage and possibly mentally deficient artist (Christina Ricci) who paints nothing but portraits of Barbara Streisand (Duke warns Dr Gonzo off her thusly: “in a few hours, she'll probably be sane enough to work herself into some kind of towering Jesus-based rage at the hazy recollection of being seduced by some kind of cruel Samoan who fed her liquor and LSD, dragged her to a Vegas hotel room and then savagely penetrated every orifice in her little body with his throbbing, uncircumcised member”) to a traffic cop (Gary Busey) who enthusiastically pursues a way over-the-limit* Duke only to let him off with a warning and ask for a kiss (“I’m very lonely here”).
For all that the critics didn’t get it and the majority of cinema-goers didn’t bother with it, ‘F&L in LV’ achieves a perfect marriage of source material, cast and director. It’s a blast, a trip and a head-fuck. Anyone whose sensibilities are easily offended would do best to avoid. But to anyone who likes cinema in the fast lane, 100mph, drunk in charge and not wearing a seatbelt, all I can say is: buy the ticket, take the ride.
*In both senses.