High Times

Don't look back: Johnny Depp (left) and Benicio Del Toro bring a '90s work ethic to the business of debauchery.

Ultimately, while Hunter S. Thompson feels a good deal of anxiety and distaste for the sin city in the desert, he saves most of the fear and loathing for the jungle in Southeast Asia. That is to say Fear and Loathing is a war novel set on the home front.

Gilliam shows himself to be keenly aware of this fact, and he demonstrates it to memorable effect during the race sequence of the Mint 400. Amid a howling sandstorm, Duke speeds through the desert in the back of a jeep, covering his beer with one hand and smoking a cigarette through a hole in the bandana he wears Zapatista-style. As "Flight of the Valkyries" trumpets in the background, Duke's jeep meets another--this one carrying artillery and a squad of men in camouflage--and the vehicles come to a halt in a clearing. "Which way is the race?" one man asks, the blare of engines enveloping him from all sides. A pause. The enemy is all around; the enemy is nowhere.

The scene (and score) recalls Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen lands at the last American river station close to the heart of darkness. Martial order has disintegrated, and the troops alternately squat in hiding and shoot rounds at unseen targets. Where's your commanding officer? Sheen asks one soldier as tracer fire and mortar rounds scream overhead in the night sky. The soldier answers, I thought you were the commanding officer.

Hard as it may be to believe, both Thompson and Gilliam are closet moralists; and Fear and Loathing mourns not the loss of the commanding officer, but the cheery anarchy that was permanently to replace him. Gilliam, with his camera's power to depict the aggrieved citizens of the sensate world, suggests that Duke and Gonzo have gone too far, violated a sacred tenet: Don't burn the locals. Thompson, surprisingly, is more sentimental. In a reflective moment--before the trip goes from bad to worse--Duke reminisces ruefully on the "energy of a whole generation." Yes, we're talking about the spirit of the '60s, which he calls, without apparent irony, "a very special time and place to be a part of." Gilliam sets the scene to the strains of the Youngbloods' "Let's Get Together."

A generation later, nothing remains to be learned from the recreational application of psychopharmacology. If the bong has wisdom to impart, it's not talking. As such, the latest incarnation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--while unapologetic in its re-creation of the high life--is only articulate about what it stands against. Authority. Nixon. The bombing of Laos. Who would have thought that Hunter S. Thompson could be invoked to advance the maxim Just say no?

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