USA / 1998
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox (from Hunter S Thompson’s novel)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey
Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is heading for Las Vegas to cover the 1971 Mint 400 Desert Race. His passengers are bloated Samoan attorney Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and, in the trunk, a collection of every narcotic known to man, neatly balanced with the finest alcohol. What follows is an epic journey of trashed hotel rooms, bongs and beautiful girls. Watching these two smoke, snort and trip their way round America is like drinking tea on a stag night, although by the end of this druggie odyssey, abstinence is rewarded.
When Alex Cox left the project after differences with the author Hunter S Thompson (who objected to Cox’s vegetarian, football-hating lifestyle), Gilliam stepped in and a tired rumour – that the ‘gonzo journalism’ cult classic would eventually be filmed – became reality, after 15 years of trying. The new director kept his distance from Thompson, whose towering presence wasn’t welcomed on set.
Depp was less ambivalent, spending months at home with the author in an attempt to “steal his soul”, while the usually rugged Del Toro is unrecognizable having gained 40lbs to live his maxim, “Too weird to live. Too rare to die.” Gilliam’s unique vision usually trumps the material, but this time a classy script is in tow. The effect is almost a stalemate, but the actors push it through, coupled with cameos from Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci that complement appearances from Cameron Diaz and Harry Dean Stanton. They are, however, eclipsed by Gary Busey, whose sexually ambivalent traffic cop is unforgettably weird and undeniably the product of twisted genius.