Our tour of Universal’s ‘Iconic Art’ steelbooks continues with the oddly-brilliant FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is Director Terry Gilliam’s madness elevated and defined for a generation of filmmakers. In some eyes, however, the film is insane; a victim of poor editing and ADR, and lost in a cacophony of yelling, drug use, and fast cars. Its arrival as an ‘Iconic Moments’ entry in Universal’s SteelBook line, while interesting, is just not up to the task of telling a story as visually arresting as this.
Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” Gilliam’s adaptation tells the story of Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) – a drugged-out journalist in 1971 who carries around an illegal pharmacy in his briefcase that could make most doctors jealous. Destructive and unfettered by any worries of legal consequences, Duke and his best friend/lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) drive to Las Vegas to cover a well-respected motorcycle race. But neither have any real interest in covering it, preferring to do a multitude of drugs and booze as each establishment first welcomes them, then throws them out. Along the way, this tag-team of destruction will meet the terrified hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire), the grizzled colleague (Mark Harmon), the odd painter (Christina Ricci), and the sexually-available police officer (Gary Busey) and reporter (Cameron Diaz). As their path takes them away and then back to Vegas, the two must stay away from the authorities while binging one final time before their hotel finds out.
Gilliam assembles a top line-up to portray these and other cameos, but the film is both more and less than that. Many will find it hard to follow and might fail to stick with it, its ugliness about 70’s drug culture on full parade here. Any hope viewers might have for a moment of clarity or even just rest are not going to like what they see. Gilliam – known for BRAZIL and THE ZERO THEOREM – has either made a masterpiece or a choppy, ineffective, and even weird film, but you can’t deny that he didn’t hit Thompson’s book as hard as it hit us. This is a story that’s as unforgiving as they come, and Gilliam is okay with that. What makes this work is just that, his uncompromising vision of the book brought to life; he flings everything he can at us, from the water-soaked hotel room, to bizarre abominations of men when the drugs kick in, to many scenes which break the boundary of good taste. This experience is much like 8MM or CRASH, where I’m happy if I don’t touch this again for another year, as it’s simply too involving to leave on as ‘background noise.’ I do see Gilliam as a top-flight creator who will never make a run-of-the-mill comic book movie or period piece – he’s just too independent, but brilliant in his commitment to a project.
Depp – who’s playing Thompson here – and del Toro honed their obsessive personalities on these rare roles, putting them on guaranteed paths to land ‘wierdo of the week’ movie roles which they’ve sadly followed. They literally transform themselves here into devilish and thoroughly unlikeable characters with such effectiveness that it’s hard to knock the film down because they are such an odd pair. Something has happened to them since, with Depp choosing too many odd roles and del Toro not out there enough these days, but one can’t deny the gravitas which both brought to FEAR. Talk about flirting with disaster on a constant basis: this is THE HANGOVER 10.0, making that series’ leads look like four AA baseball players to the big leagues imagined here. Depp’s delivery of Thompson’s lines is impeccable if not very hard to hear on occasion, while del Toro’s viciousness shows just what kind of actor whom he could become. It’s too bad that neither has done anything as memorable since, but perhaps there will be a chance again for them to team up.
Let’s not mince words: FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is a hard film to get through, setting your mood for the whole day decidedly negative if you’re not careful. But it’s become the gold standard for weird, an engrossingly odd affair that few films can deliver.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS stumbles into town with the same VC-1 1080p transfer that appeared on Universal’s HD-DVD release in 2006. There is a lot to like here, from the arid Nevada desert which shows off nice detail to the lights and bombasity of Las Vegas. Hair and sweat in Maquire’s face are detailed and even a bit too good, along with the fat lines when del Toro’s stomach is exposed. The color palette has been dialed to warm, and everyone seems to benefit, from the red in an old lady’s blouse to Depp’s colorful Hawaiian shirts. We can see individual strands of hair, and interior shots – especially each destroyed hotel room – look authentically chaotic. It’s clear that Universal did spend some time with this track, but issues still abound. It’s been well-documented just how many problems this transfer has, from edge enhancement, darks being swallowed up by black, and a dirty print that is especially noticeable at the beginning where they meet Maquire. I have yet to see the banding and artifacting which some have observed, but it’s doubtful I’ll be returning to confirm. Sure, Gilliam’s print was a disaster to start, and Universal has done a good job in cleaning some of it up, but a film like this deserves a proper rebuild and not just an HD-DVD boost.
Universal’s audio presentation of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is a good example of a studio doing its best with what has been given to them; in this case, Director Terry Gilliam’s wild and unwieldy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The issues begin with the nearly unintelligible dialogue by Depp and del Toro which pervades the experience – Universal has done its best by dropping it square in the center channel, but it’s a haul to deal and I found myself rewinding on many occasions just to catch everything. ADR is a constant concern here, minimized by Universal as best they can. The rest of the experience – from pans across forward channels to the music by Composer Ray Cooper – is quite good. There isn’t much in the surround department to speak of, but then again we’re not here to listen to ambient sounds while Depp and del Toro coke up or inhale Ether. The surrounds do show up once in awhile, but it’s the LFE which delivers the most punch when needed. Still, that isn’t enough to warrant a better score, as I understand the Criterion version all but eliminates these issues. Why Universal didn’t add that disc to the ‘Iconic Moments’ is beyond me, because this one is clearly not good enough.
Perhaps the worst of the lot, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS arrives with the bare minimum of supplements. Again, that 2003 Criterion version sported a five-star collection of three commentaries, multiple documentaries and other items. What we get here is a paired-down, flat, and uninspiring set, all of which are presented in mere SD:
- Deleted Scenes (11:39): This is all rough cut, unfinished work, all of which plays in a one long section. There are some interesting items here, especially the final piece.
- Spotlight on Location (10:35): Your standard EPK
- D-Box Enabled: For those of you who don’t want to do drugs but want to see what it’s like, this one might work for you.
- BD-Live, My Scenes and Internet Ticker
There’s plenty of room on the 50GB disc to accommodate all of the 2003 material, so it’s especially disappointing that it couldn’t be added. We couldn’t keep our bashing of this release to just the disc – this ‘Iconic Moments’ also drops the ball with no interior artwork. It’s a pretty cover — perhaps one of our favorites of the set — but it’s just another reason for what amounts to a major disappointment.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS may not be for everyone, but Gilliam diehards and Hunter S. Thompson aficionados will eat it up. Depp and del Toro play the absolute most absurd performances of their varied careers, showing off where Jack Sparrow and The Collector might have been conceived. Unfortunately, the ‘Iconic Moments’ version can’t match the film, with the single-disc non-Criterion version showing off issues in both the audio and video transfers, and the supplements being horrifyingly limited. This is not the version of FEAR you want to own, but there may not be one for most casual viewers to begin with. The freaky visuals and dialogue are oh so unforgettable (when you can hear them), but it’s divided audiences since its initial release, with the ‘Iconic Moments’ version actually making a strong case to steer clear of its purchase. This is perhaps the weakest of the run and a reminder that we shouldn’t run out and spend money just because new packaging is offered.