I watched two comedies back-to-back on Sunday: Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966) and ¡Three Amigos! (1986). The former is quite bad, and yet the movie fascinates in other ways. Moreover, one gets the sense that, had someone with talent stepped in and tweaked things just a little bit, it might have been pretty funny instead of the beguiling car wreck it became. Conversely, the Western spoof ¡Three Amigos! is a much better movie but it's generally listless with just intermittent laughs and overall not half as interesting. It has a can't-miss premise yet does, as if writers Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman thought the basic idea alone would carry the film. Instead, it's unfocused and lethargic with perfunctory, uninteresting performances, and at 105 minutes criminally overlong.
Though originally released by Orion Pictures, rights currently reside with HBO rather than with MGM. HBO may have struggled to find decent film elements, because the Blu-ray of ¡Three Amigos! is a major disappointment, with eye-straining DNR that severely impacts darker scenes and anything involving movement, e.g., all of the action scenes. Extras included a 1986 cast interview, deleted scenes in high-def, and most intriguingly a 16-page booklet that reprints an Empire magazine article that reunited the movie's three stars.
The plot of ¡Three Amigos! is a slight variation of The Magnificent Seven (1960) without really spoofing it directly. Rather, its backbone is something along the lines others have attempted before in films like Hearts of the West (1975) and, later, in Sunset (1988): merging the real and reel West for comic effect. In ¡Three Amigos!, Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), Lucky Day (Steve Martin), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) are silent era Hollywood stars collectively known as the Three Amigos, forerunners, apparently, to B-picture triumvirates like Hoppy-Windy-Lucky and the Three Mesquiteers.
They find themselves homeless and out of work after asking studio head Harry Flugleman (Joe Mantegna) for a raise, but immediately receive a telegram from Mexican peasant Carmen (Patrice Martinez). Believing them to be real, bona fide heroes, she asks them to protect her poor village from El Guapo (Alfonso Arau, who appeared in a similar role in The Wild Bunch and later directed Like Water for Chocolate). For reasons too complicated to explain here, the Three Amigos misinterpret Carmen's telegram, thinking they are being invited to make a well-paid personal appearance.
Of course, much of the comedy is derived from the trio blithely thinking El Guapo and his 50 banditos are local actors themselves, and that grateful reactions from villagers have to do with their fame. And, of course, after they finally catch on, they decide to try and live up to their screen image.
The film doesn't seem to know what it wants to satirize, and none of it is done with any clear understanding of what it's trying to spoof. A few scenes from one of the Three Amigos silent Westerns is shown, but it doesn't remotely resemble any silent Western I've ever seen. Later, around the campfire, they perform Randy Newman's "Blue Shadows" and enter Roy Rogers/singing cowboy territory. It's a good song and, humorously, the number incorporates singing horses, a talking turtle and other gleefully silly bits. But, try as they might, Chase, Martin, and Short just can't sing and slightly damage an otherwise charming little vignette.
There's a sprinkling of very funny concepts: El Guapo, it turns out, is sensitive about "turning forty" so his sweaty, grizzled men chip in and buy him a sweater (the only laugh-out-loud moment for this reviewer). But jokes as good as these are too few and far between.
Chase, top-billed, walks through his role playing his established screen persona, adding little and never really getting into the spirit of the thing. At the "Cantina el Borracho" ("Bar of the Drunks"), Martin and Short decide to wow the tough crowd with a song and dance number, the amusingly fey "My Little Buttercup," but the scene has Chase lazily off on the sidelines, supposedly playing the piano. Martin and Short impress in other ways - Martin shows off some pretty nifty lassoing tricks - but rarely does the trio ever really seem to be a team and there's little to distinguish them, other than a Laurel & Hardy-like innocence: they are babes in the desert. "The Ballad of the Three Amigos," closely echoing "The Three Caballeros (Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!)" from the 1944 Disney film, has them together, but the best moments are little solo bits: Martin's realization that El Guapo and his men are for real, Short telling a bemused group of villagers about a chance encounter with Dorothy Gish. For the most part though, the picture drags and is uninspired.
Video & Audio
The 1.85:1 pre-titles and title elements for ¡Three Amigos! looks pretty bad, but afterwards things snap into 1080p high-def clarity, sort of. The image has been heavily processed, much too much so, to the point where any kind of sudden movement breaks down into fine horizontal lines. And so, mistaking rain for film scratches, the DNR tries to zap it all away, resulting in raindrops with thick lines of video noise running through them. This happens throughout the film, on galloping horses, during quick-draws - any kind of action at all. The region A disc includes a 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix but separations from the originally Dolby Stereo release are modest, a handful of discrete sound and dialogue effects. Also included are French and Spanish DTS Digital Surround tracks with subtitles in all three languages.
Supplements include a few deleted scenes, and a group interview with Chase, Martin, and Short from 1986. The aforementioned booklet is interesting and a welcome change from the usual behind-the-scenes video documentary. (You mean this non-Criterion disc actually includes something worth reading? Wow!) It's so enthusiastic about the film it almost but not quite makes me want to reexamine the film a year or two from now.
¡Three Amigos! is one of those movies that must have been a heck of a lot of fun to make, but this pleasure hasn't been passed along to the audience. The film was a major flop when it was new, though through the years it has developed a cult following of sorts. Much as I wanted to like it, I nonetheless found it mediocre. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.