This is not a movie for everyone. Its intense surrealistic drug imagery is at once intriguing and revolting. The film doesn’t have a strong point, but it tells it vividly and with an intense visual flair.
Johnny Depp stars as journalist Hunter S. Thompson (going under the alias Raoul Duke). In early 1971, he is given an assignment to travel to Las Vegas and cover the Mint 400, a motorcycle race in the desert. He hooks up with his attorney, Oscar Acosta (Benicio Del Toro) aka Dr. Gonzo, and together they plan to visit Vegas on one of the most intense drug and booze benders the world has ever seen.
Riding in a fire apple red convertible at top speed across the desert, and with a trunk full of nearly every dangerous illegal drug imaginable, the pair enter Las Vegas, where possession of mere marijuana carries a 20-year prison term. But they don’t let little things like laws or societal norms stand in the way of hitting their psychedelic highs.
If the film has a statement, it is a portrayal of the aftermath of the 60s. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo are no longer heroes of a people’s revolution, but merely the distorted and discarded flotsam and jetsam of time. The purpose of the sixties had reached its final resting place: the ultimate indulgence of self-gratification.
The film doesn’t quite have a plot. The shreds of one are lost in the haze of the protagonists’ drug induced stupor. Instead, the film plays as a series of vignettes detailing the steady descent from normality into utter depravity.
More of a surreal experience than a movie, the film does manage to capture the stream-of-consciousness feeling of Thompson’s book. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on your own particular tolerances.
A few of the sequences in the movie drag on a bit long, and the film treads a thin line with its humor. That humor comes in two varieties: watching the hallucinating fools do foolish things, and observing the clash between the normal Vegas folk and the drug fiends. The former is amusing at first, but quickly wears out its welcome…however, there’s enough of the latter to prop up the movie in its weak spots.
Johnny Depp is playing a broad caricature here, but he manages to make the character interesting. Benicio Del Toro goes deep into character… so deep that he’s hardly recognizable in the film. The rest of the film is flooded with cameos by everyone from Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci to Ellen Barkin and Gary Busey. Even Penn Jilette and Lyle Lovett pop up here and there.
If you enjoyed the book, you’ll find the movie about as good an adaptation as you could hope for. If the description in this review didn’t sound the slightest bit intriguing…this film is not for you. Whatever the case, if you see the film, you’ll never look at hotel carpeting the same way again.