The year is 1971 and journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is driving through the desert to an assignment in Las Vegas accompanied by his attorney, Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro). They are both in a state of advanced inebriation due to alcohol and other, more illegal drugs in their systems, and Duke is currently convinced that this is bat country: he's reluctant to mention this to Dr Gonzo. As they bullet along the road, determined to reach their hotel in time to check in before the deadline that will see them receive their expenses for free, they notice a hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire) on the hard shoulder. Dr Gonzo, now in the driver's seat, stops for him and he jumps in, but immediately regrets his decision when it appears as though the two men are less good Samaritans and more insane. The hitchhiker doesn't know the half of it...
It took a least two and a half decades for Hunter S. Thompson's all time cult favourite book of "Gonzo Journalism" to reach the screen, after attempts by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Ralph Bakshi (who thought the work would be best as a cartoon) and very nearly Alex Cox, who ended up falling out with Thompson. Cox still got a screenplay credit with Tod Davies for their script even though the screenplay actually used was a new one by the man who eventually brought it to the screen, Terry Gilliam, with Tony Grisoni. Was it really possible to bring Thompson's prose to the cinema and truly capture the spirit of the book?
Up to a point, Gilliam is successful. It's patently a Gilliam film, with its crazy camera angles, surreal scenes superbly realised such as the lounge bar populated by giant lizards that Duke hallucinates, and wild eyed humour to bring the darker elements into sharper relief. In fact, it may be too much of a Gilliam film to do justice to the original, but the performances at its heart, from Depp and Del Toro, show a faithfulness to the material that go above and beyond the call of duty. All the memorable scenes from the book are there, and if they don't look quite as you might have imagined from, say, Ralph Steadman's illustrations, then at least they are vivid enough in their own right.
The laughs are almost completely reliant on a kind of druggy slapstick, and perhaps too much of the film is its two stars staggering and stumbling around, rambling and ranting, but this manages to approximate the hazy, queasy world of narcotics the characters inhabit in their efforts to get through the long days and nights of a society that has gone through sixties permissiveness and idealism and apparently rejected it. This leaves the likes of Duke and Dr Gonzo washed up on conservative shores while the Vietnam war still rages on and their favourite lifestyle, getting high, is a dangerous state to be in.
The plot, as in the book, reels from episode to epsiode with Duke initially covering a motorcycle race in the desert that is too dusty to see anything that's going on (ruining his beer into the bargain). But the drugs not so much take hold as never let go, and there's a sinister side exemplified by Del Toro's knife wielding antics that spook the likes of Cameron Diaz and Ellen Burstyn, in a conclusive scene that brings out the serious message. That is, that the antiheroes' lifestyle of blotting out reality does nothing but amplify it, and make everything nightmarish to the point that it can only be coped with with more drugs. So much of them are used that you may well be surprised that nobody dies, and while there are many highlights of comedy (Duke and Dr Gonzo attempting to get into a Debbie Reynolds show, for example) and scenes that may give you the fear (Duke discussing what to do with teenager Christina Ricci when she turns up in Dr Gonzo's room), the film is more a triumph of artistic exertion than an 100% satisfying adaptation. Music by Ray Cooper.