Johnny Depp’s Drug-Fueled Masterpiece Was Released 25 Years Ago Today

Johnny Depp's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

By Charlene Badasie | Updated

Two and a half decades ago, the black comedy adventure film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas took audiences on a drug-fueled odyssey through the heart of the American Dream. The film, starring Johnny Depp, emerged from the depths of American counterculture and left an indelible mark on cinema history.

The movie is directed by Terry Gilliam from a screenplay he co-wrote with Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, and Alex Cox. The story is based on the cult classic novel of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson. It stars Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (a journalist based on Thompson himself) and Benicio del Toro as his eccentric attorney, Dr. Gonzo (based on Thompson’s real-life lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta).

The story follows Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they embark on a road trip to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas. But their journey quickly spirals into a haze of drugs, alcohol, and bizarre encounters. The film is set in the early 1970s, a period characterized by social and political unrest. The narrative reflects the disillusionment and chaotic energy of the time.

The film captures the essence of Thompson’s distinctive writing style, known as “Gonzo journalism,” which blends factual reporting with the writer’s personal experiences and subjective observations. As such, the Johnny Depp movie is a surreal and hallucinatory portrayal of the duo’s experiences, blurring the line between reality and drug-induced delusions.

The story chronicles the journey of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they meet a series of eccentric characters and engage in various drug-induced escapades. They pick up a hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire) obsessed with surfing, drop him off in the middle of nowhere, and then reencounter him at a diner.

Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) attend a convention where they ingest more drugs and cause chaos. They also visit a circus-themed casino, where they continue to cause mayhem. As the story progresses, the characters’ drug use becomes more intense, and their behavior increasingly erratic.

Following an unspecified amount of time, Duke wakes up to find their fancy hotel suite ruined. After discovering his tape recorder, he tries to remember what happened. As he listens, he has brief memories of general mayhem, including Gonzo threatening a waitress at a diner, convincing a cleaner that they are police officers, and attempting to buy an orangutan.

Duke (Johnny Depp) eventually drops Gonzo off at the airport before returning to the hotel to finish his article. He then speeds back to Los Angeles. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is known for its vivid visual style and frenetic pacing. Terry Gilliam’s direction brings Thompson’s words to life with a combination of surreal imagery, rapid editing, and an eclectic soundtrack.

The film’s visuals, coupled with Johnny Depp’s and Del Toro’s committed performances, create an immersive and often disturbing journey into the dark underbelly of American society. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had a mixed reaction from critics following its release. Some praised the film for its audacity, and visual style, while others found it self-indulgent and excessively chaotic.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas also underperformed at the box office, earning 10.6 million on a budget of approximately $18.5 million. Its limited appeal and unconventional narrative likely contributed to its financial struggles. However, its cult status and enduring popularity have allowed it to maintain a presence in popular culture.

Over time, the Johnny Depp movie gained recognition as a significant film within the counterculture genre. It continues to be discussed and analyzed by film enthusiasts, and its influence can be seen in subsequent works that explore similar themes and styles. While it may not have found mainstream success upon its 1998 release, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been dubbed a masterpiece.