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Empire List #469: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Here’s a semi-interesting fact: I spent approximately eight years in South America, four of them in Peru, and I never did any drugs. No one at any of my schools ever offered me any and I know for a fact know somebody had some because in Peru sniffer dogs were once brought in and lockers were searched. This may sound lame to some people, but in my lunchbox all I had was…well, my lunch. No weed, no blow, not even a cigarette. The only drug-related experience I have ever had is watching drug-related movies such as “Traffic,” “Easy Rider,” “Blow,” “The Big Lebowski.” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

I found “Fear and Loathing…” at a video store in Sherbrooke while I was studying English at the Universite de Sherbrooke (no drugs there either). Not much of a video store, since you could see the evolution of home entertainment as you walked down the aisles. They had Blu-rays, DVDs…and VHS tapes…in 2007. Seriously, time to go with the flow and dump the old tapes. But you had to hand it to the management, they had a wide variety of movies, including the criterion release of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” directed by Terry Gilliam, he of Monty Python fame. I had heard of this particular film for years since it has attained a cult status. I was curious to know why so I rented it immediately with the intention of watching it that night on my laptop.

I believe the very first words uttered by Johnny Depp as journalist Raoul Duke are “We were right around Barstow when the drugs started to take effect.” That pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie right there. Duke and his associate, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) are in a convertible headed for Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. Not that their reason for going to Vegas really matters since they spend most of their stay stoned out of their minds. I believe the story is set in 1970s, so of course they drop acid, but also mescaline, ether, and some stuff that was experimental. As mentioned, I’ve never been on a drug trip, but if any of the drug-induced sequences in this movie are accurate, I am not too tempted to go on one.

Terry Gilliam is a director with a knack for visually creative sequences, so when Duke and Gonzo start using, the viewer gets to see some mighty interesting things happen on-screen. When they check into their first hotel, Duke hallucinates that the carpet is moving and that some of the patrons are hideous lizards. That’s just the first hotel. At another one Gonzo offers Duke some of the experimental stuff, after which Duke is convinced Gonzo is turning into a hairy creature with breasts on its back. It’s a miracle these two didn’t end up jumping off a balcony thinking they were being chased by an rhinoceros wielding a chainsaw. Although one drug trip is rather amusing as it involves Duke having a flashback to a dance club and seeing himself, or rather Johnny Depp sees Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist on whom Duke is based on.

Johnny Depp has got to be one of the few actors in the world who can immerse himself into such a character. He has played everything from Ed Wood to Willie Wonka. He can play gangsters, cops, pirates, murderers, and just about everything in between. Kudos to Benicio del Toro as well for being almost unrecognisable as Dr. Gonzo, the overweight Samoan lawyer who is the last person in the world who should offer legal advice to anyone, much less a drug-addled journalist in Las Vegas.

Despite having no coherent plot, this movie is a fun trip, and not just for the visuals. Apart from the excellent two leads, some notable actors cameo in the film, such as Tobey Maguire before his “Spider-Man” days as a hitchhiker, and Gary Busey, an actor who, rumour has it, also did his fair share of drugs, as a cop pulling Duke over in the middle of the desert. Then there is Christina Ricci as Lucy, a girl who came to Vegas to meet Barbara Streisand, but is fed LSD by Gonzo and taken to his room. Seeing that Lucy is most likely under age, this is where Duke believes they have crossed the line and should probably back away from this particular situation. Wise move.

It’s a shame that this movie bombed at the box-office when it was first released, but I sort of understand why given its incoherent plot and bizarre images. This is also most likely also why it became a cult classic, like most of Terry Gilliam’s films. I should be thankful since he did me a favour: I don’t need to do drugs to have a wild trip; I just need to watch this movie.

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