Rango – 2011 – dir. Gore Verbinski
In preparation to play an exaggerated, though realistic, portrayal of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp spent several months living in Thompson’s basement looking through the writings and mementos from the drug filled adventure that became the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas“. Depp was also studying his mannerisms, he wanted to bring the whole aura of Thompson, with the guns, the drugs, and more, to life. When the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came out, Depp received a lot of positive reviews for the way that he accurately portrayed the larger than life persona of Thompson. In the years since Fear and Loathing, Depp has found various ways to pay tribute to the man that let him into his home. When Thompson died in 2005, Depp paid for the outlandish funeral party. He also narrated the Alex Gibney 2008 documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Depp has even stated that Thompson was part of his influence for the character of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In 2011, Depp ventured into the animated Wild West in the form of a chameleon, in the popular film Rango. Though the character is animated, as well as a reptile, one can see that Depp intended the unnamed chameleon to be a tribute to the author.
There are many similarities between Rango and Thompson that make it seem more than just pure coincidence. In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen, CO. In Rango, the chameleon, who adopts the name of Rango, is mistaken for a lawman based on some fortunate luck. Rango’s attire of a red Hawaiian shirt is very similar to ones that Depp as Thompson wore in Fear and Loathing. Because of this connection between fiction and reality, Rango’s director Gore Verbinski decided to have some fun and threw in a scene that could have easily come out of Fear and Loathing. When Rango attempts to cross a road thanks to some guidance from an armadillo, he ends up on the windshield of a driver who looks like, and is supposed to be, Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) while Dr. Gonzo, Thompson/Duke’s sidekick, sits in the back. It was a fitting tribute to late author, as well as Depp’s past work. Their interaction is only for a few seconds, but it is fitting that they cross paths at the beginning of both of their adventures into new realities.
While the children, whom this movie was marketed toward, won’t catch on to these allusions to Thompson, the parents probably will. It provides the movie with a deeper sense of humor. Much of the humor to Rango’s character is how out of his element he is, and mostly lucky in his attempt to save the troubled town of Dirt. The town folk think of him as a savior, when in fact he is a house pet. Rango is constantly in trouble, but due to pure luck he seems to get out of situations, though met with some skepticism by some of the smarter towns folks. While Thompson and Rango don’t have the same set of circumstances, they are both out of their element. Rango, who previously lived in a terrarium, now has to fend for himself in the world, and luckily pulls off a victory: a showdown with an outlaw. He then is stuck with the impossible task of bringing water to the town. Thompson made his own adventure into the unknown, with a drug induced trip to Las Vegas. Through the drug induced state, Duke’s reality and perception of what is going around him is foreign to him, in the same way life outside of the terrarium is for Rango. Eventually, Rango is able to acclimate himself in the town of Dirt, through trials and many many errors.
Depp is an actor who has built up a reputation for playing over the top, but memorable, fictional characters. But maybe the one character that he keeps on playing, not Jack Sparrow, but the many versions of Hunter S. Thompson, will be the one that will forever stick to him. “He’s a part of me,” explained Depp in an interview. “Every time I was with him, it was just a crazed adventure.” In Rango, Thompson in the form of an animated chameleon, certainly ended up on one crazy adventure. If playing one version of Thompson wasn’t enough for the year, Depp had another film come out in 2011, The Rum Diary, adapted from Thompson’s novel of the same name.
Rango is a tribute to the writer that had a major impact of the roles Johnny Depp has played over the last decade plus. Even though there are times Depp has stepped away from characters that reflect Thompson, he always finds a way back to him. Which, as a viewer, is great for us because some of Depp’s wackiest but best roles have been Thompson influenced. As Thompson once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”