Monday, May 18, 1998 | 3:14 a.m.
"There goes one of God's prototypes," muses Johnny Depp's frenetic Hunter S. Thompson - aka "Dr. Gonzo" - near the end of Terry Gilliam's visually stunning and wickedly satirical film of Hunter S. Thompson's drug-and-tinsel epic "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas." He smiles faintly at his friend, the pudgy, nearly incoherent Samoan attorney (Benecio Del Toro) as he flees Las Vegas, and sums him up: "A mutant, never intended for mass production."
He's also got the film tagged. Gilliam's gift for quirky, individual filmmaking has taken many shapes and forms: cautionary sci-fi tales ("12 Monkeys"), stories of redemption ("The Fisher King"), popcorn ("The Adventures of Baron Munchasen") and glimpses of cold parallel worlds ("Brazil"). Every film in his oeuvre shares some or all of these qualities in some measure; with "Fear and Loathing," Gilliam employs them all.
The narrative is simple - your basic wild Sin City weekend, fortified with enough hard and exotic drugs to kill an entire platoon of marines - but Thompson uses it as eulogy for the sixties, the last violent, pained gasp of a decade defined by violence and pain. Halfway through the film, Depp's Thompson looks out the window of his Mint Hotel suite at the unnatural glow of Las Vegas, circa 1971, and bemoans what America had lost in the last ten years: "With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave broke and rolled back."
That's about it for coherence, however. Unless you're familiar with the source material, much of "Fear and Loathing's" acerbic dialogue will be lost on your ears. Del Toro, in particular, has one-upped his indecipherable turn in "The Usual Suspects"; he sounds as if he's drowning in an ocean of oatmeal. Depp mimics Thompson's clipped, mumbled cadence faithfully, almost too faithfully. Depp is rapidly proving to be one of the best talents of his generation. Watching him stumble through the perverse landscape of "Fear and Loathing," warding off imaginary bats, lizards and wolverines, is akin to watching Lugosi's Dracula - a new monster to be reckoned with, kinetic and unpredictable. You can't take your eyes off of him, and the fact that you can't understand half the things he's saying seems irrelevant.
Half the time, Depp really has to work for it. Gilliam throws every gauntlet of which he's capable, and even pulls out a few surprises. The "Bazooko Circus" casino (a wild fantasia of Circus Circus, name changed to protect the innocent) is an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus fueled by raw ether, with such tried-and-true nightmare images as evil clowns and shadowy dwarfs, but also with enough blatant symbolism that the casino succeeds as a bulk metaphor for Thompson's America. It is ugly, it is titillating, and nobody is quite sure how it came to this pass. "What the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war," surmises Depp, pitching and waving as if being shaken by an unseen occult hand.
The film is, by and large, a verbatim presentation of Thompson's novel. The only liberties Gilliam takes are with the somewhat muddled second half of the original story; the director applies a conventional story structure to the episodic nature of Thompson's narrative, with rousing success. It ain't "Citizen Kane," but there's finally a perceptible climax to Thompson's convoluted moral study.
The film of "Fear and Loathing" could only have happened now, as popular culture succeeds all other kinds of stimuli and America enters another round of put-up-or-shut-up. The novel was right for Thompson's time, and the film is right for this one - as native as the American Flags that pop up throughout the film, and as foreign as any of Gilliam's other worlds. If "Brazil" is the capitol of Gilliam's Psychotic State, "Fear and Loathing" is its wild, dusty border town. Beyond this point, there be lizards.