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Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

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Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas epitomizes the unfilmable book, but writer-director Terry Gilliam has a long and storied history of attempting the impossible. Arriving near the end of a decade characterized by peace and prosperity, 1998's movie adaptation was released to mixed reviews and dismal box-office tallies. Now, however, its vision of disillusioned, chemically loaded iconoclasts wading maniacally through a nightmare America lorded over by the embodiment of ghoulish, undeserved authority seems more prescient than retro. History has given new relevance to Thompson's masterpiece of gonzo journalism, making Criterion's exhaustive double-disc DVD set of Gilliam's film all the more indispensable. As the set reveals, Gilliam was not Fear And Loathing's original director–Alex Cox was fired early on, though he later engaged in a heated battle for the final screenwriting credit–but it's hard to imagine anyone else handling the material. His unparalleled visual imagination proves a perfect match for Thompson's flights of literary fancy, and while the director gets the requisite drugged-out darkness, he also understands and plays up the wounded idealism and sweetness at the core of the book. Fear And Loathing similarly found the perfect Thompson surrogate in Johnny Depp. Bill Murray played Thompson in 1980's Where The Buffalo Roam, but where Murray's unmistakable persona clashed violently with Thompson's, Depp is a perfect chameleon: Not only does he re-create the writer's voice and mannerisms, but he also seems to capture Thompson's soul. Fear And Loathing's thin, rambling, episodic plot deals with the hallucinogen-fueled misadventures of Depp and lawyer Benicio Del Toro as they wander through a Las Vegas dystopia where the idealism of the '60s has died a slow, painful death. The film conveys the sense that a cultural war has been fought, the "silent majority" trumpeted by Nixon winning handily over the forces of peace and love. As a meditation on the death of the '60s, Fear And Loathing is irreverent, funny, and strangely touching. Five years after its inauspicious theatrical release, the film looks less like an interesting failure than an overlooked classic. The DVD piles on an entire disc of extras that provide historical context for Thompson's book and Gilliam's movie. In addition to three commentaries, including one by a distracted Thompson, the set includes footage of Depp reading a revealing correspondence between the author and himself, as well as a clueless BBC documentary on Thompson that could serve as the inspiration for every mockumentary that has ever scored easy laughs lampooning the pretension and pompousness of British documentarians. Perhaps the disc's most poignant and emblematic feature is an extended reading by Oscar Zeta Acosta (the inspiration for Del Toro's character) in which the gifted and charismatic activist/author somehow conveys dignity and authority while wearing a yellow muscle shirt that exposes far too much of his formidable belly.