Re-evaluating deeply held opinions: ¡The Three Amigos!

For years, if you had asked me about ¡The Three Amigos!, my response would have been pretty derisive. 

I saw that film under some cloudy circumstances during a summer in the late 80’s or early 90’s (it came out in 1986), and my impression was less than positive.  In spite of the obvious talent involved–Martin Short, Steve Martin & Chevy Chase–I came away thinking the thing was boring, silly and more stupid than funny.

There were a couple of bits that I recalled fondly.  I thought the part where Chevy Chase’s character accidentally kills the invisible swordsman (by shooting randomly to his side rather than up in the air) was semi-inspired, and the bit that preceded the climax when Martin Short told one of the villagers, “Sew, old one!  Sew like the wind!” got stuck in my mind for years.  But that was it, the rest of the film was a forgettable mess.

Except I also remembered that funny bit where the leader of the bandits is celebrating his birthday, and all his men chip in to get him a present.  “It’s a sweater!” he calls out with  glee.  And then later we see him wearing it, tied around his neck, like a California frat boy.  OK, I admit, that was clever too.  But that’s it, the rest of the film is a complete waste of time–

Oh wait, also there’s that bit where the main baddie’s second-in-command deflects his boss’ anger by saying something like, “I know I don’t have your education, but could it be that once again you are taking out your anger on me which is really directed against someone else?”  That’s kind of funny in a similar way as the sweater gag.

And then there’s also some good physical humor, like when Steve Martin is chained up in a dungeon, and is struggling to lift those weights to reach the key that he needs.  That’s  pretty funny .  Or even that joke with all the canteens, or–

Wait a minute!  Are you saying that actually, I kind of like The Three Amigos?  That in spite of it being broadly-humored and kind of silly, that it’s actually an enjoyable comedy that I’d even be happy to watch again?!

Well, yes, I am!

I have to admit it.  My family and I were looking for something to watch together and we came across ¡The Three Amigos! and I made the executive decision that this is how we were going to spend our evening.  My teen and pre-teen daughters were suspicious, a feeling which the opening sequences didn’t alleviate.  In the less-driven world of 1980’s American comedy cinema, the movie’s concept and title characters are introduced fairly slowly, in a purposefully artificial silent adventure film.  Their makeup is garish and their heroics are amateurish, even more so today than they probably looked in 1986.

Then there’s the plot-establishing scene where the Amigos ask for too much money and get fired from their gig as movie stars.  This bit includes cameos from Saturday Night Live contemporaries Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz, which means something to me but nothing to my kids or my non-American wife. And so so far, it just feels like we’re slowly stumbling through a pretty tedious film.

Then, finally, we get the movie’s first good joke:  the group receive a telegram inviting them to come to Mexico and do battle against the infamous El Guapo.  What does “infamous” mean, asks Chevy Chase?  Martin Short replies, condescendingly:  it means “more than famous”, or “beyond famous.”  El Guapo is not just famous, he’s infamous.  From then on, the movie pretty much had us.  We watched three talented comedians all strutting their stuff against a series of set pieces designed to showcase their abilities.

In addition to the moments already mentioned, we chuckled as Steve Martin struggled to get his compatriots’ attention through a series of mock birdcalls.  We smiled in spite of ourselves when the Amigos decided to entertain a saloon full of ruffians with a performance of My Little Buttercup.  And we laughed pretty heartily when they realized that their conflict with El Guapo was not a show after all, but for real.  There’s something really enjoyable about watching three grown men cry!

¡The Three Amigos! is directed by John Landis, a director I’d only heard of because of the tragedy that occurred in his segment of The Twilight Zone Movie, but turns out to have directed a bunch of stuff that I’m familiar with (eg. The Blues Brothers and Into the Night).  For the most part his approach here seems to be to just let the stars do their thing, but at the same time he works hard to create some amusing dynamics around them.  The villains of the piece – El Guapo (actor / director Alfonso Arau) and his assistant Jefe (Tony Plana) – are well developed and funny, and more than hold their own against the bigger celebrities who play the leads.  I also enjoyed an amusing turn by an actor named Fred Asparagus, who plays a bartender.

In the end, we all enjoyed the entire movie, even if my kids were a bit weirded out by the surreal sequence when they are camping out on an obviously fake landscape and singing songs with all manner of desert animals.  My oldest daughter especially thought the whole thing was really peculiar, but I just feel like you have to kick back and enjoy the silliness of it.  The movie is mostly naturalistic comedy but it’s punctuated by these strange moments of surreal nonsense.  But in the end that just makes it that much more unpredictable and surprising.

So, years after my first viewing, I’m happy to give this effort a modestly positive review.

Good grief, really?  What’s going on?  What’s happening to my deeply-cherished opinions?  What’s next?  Am I suddenly going to find that I actually liked Random HeartsHook?!  Back to the Future part 2?!! 

Is nothing safe anymore?


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