Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fear & Loathing on the Silver Screen

With The Rum Diary tentatively scheduled for a release sometime in 2009, now would seem as good a time as any to take a look back at the two prior film releases that were inspired by the weird wanderings and words of Hunter S. Thompson.

Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005) was an American journalist, would-be politician and author, most famous for his novels Hells Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, his work in Rolling Stone Magazine and posthumously having his ashes fired out of a cannon, across his fortified property 'Owl Farm' in Woody Creek, Colorado.

Heavily influenced by recreational drug use and its promotion, a keen wit and an appreciation of the written word, along with a devotion to handguns and other incendiary devices, Thompson dragged his readers into a perspective and way of life that would form the crux of what would eventually become known as gonzo journalism - a subjective form of journalism that raids the imagination, plunders reality and feeds the public a sublime blend of truth and exaggeration for effect.

It was inevitable that the public at large would eventually catch on to the adrenaline rush that gonzo and the good Dr. Thompson were offering in high-grade, non-diluted quantity, but that’s not to say that Hollywood immediately got things right.

Where the Buffalo Roams (1980)
Often overlooked and generally forgotten, this film is perhaps a better introduction and rough overview to the world of Hunter S. Thompson than the later Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Bill Murray plays the role of Hunter S. Thompson, and does so rather admirably. Murray managed to capture the spirit, mannerisms and vigour of Thompson, after having observed and shared time with the man over the space of several months, which it is said culminated in Murray being tied to a chair and thrown into a swimming pool, blindfolded.

Having the role nailed, Murray’s efforts and that of his co-star Peter Boyle (as Carl Lazlo) sadly weren’t enough to save this film from sinking into obscurity shortly after its release – a failure owed to an over ambitious script. Tempting to any writer perhaps, the smorgasbord of ideas that could be mined from Thompson’s works was myriad, and certainly over indulged upon. Including as much of Thompson’s adventures as possible in the space of a 96-minute feature was folly, for as they say – sometimes less is more.

Where the Buffalo Roams plays out like a weird staccato take on a buddy film, focusing more on the relationship between Thompson and Lazlo, which is utilized as a means to bridge various unrelated articles and books from throughout Thompson’s career up until 1980.

The film has its moments, and is one that no Thompson collection should be without, but its value is as either an introduction for the novice or as an addendum to those well versed in the subject matter.
Rating 2/5

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Driven by the exceptional acting talent that is Johnny Depp in the role of Hunter S. Thompson, this film succeeds Where the Buffalo Roams packed up and then collapsed into a heaping mass of random ideas and a lack of linear progression.

Like Murray before him, Johnny Depp was able to explore Thompson’s character and mannerisms over a number of months spent with him in Colorado. A period that was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Thompson and Depp had already formed a strong bond and friendship from previous meetings.

The film itself benefits from the synergy between the two in the form of a brilliant portrayal of Thompson by Depp, whose acting talents shine across the board.

The plot escapes the pitfalls generated in Buffalo by taking Thompson’s best known work and developing it without diluting its essence or mangling it for the sake of covering more ground. The story is strong, plays out well and is also further reinforced by fine casting and the ability of Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo to play both a bane and foil to Depp’s Thompson / Raoul Duke.

Whilst the film is more fantasy and Gonzo heavy than the earlier Murray vehicle, it is true to Thompson’s writing, his nature and his intention. It is both a quality film and tribute to a man who had become a legend in his own lifetime.
Rating 4/5

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