Should I Watch..? 'Three Amigos!' (1986)
What's the big deal?
¡Three Amigos! is a comedy western film released in 1986 and is very loosely based on the 1954 film Seven Samurai and its Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven. Directed by John Landis, the film features Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as three silent-film actors who are duped into becoming real-life heroes by a town besieged by Mexican bandits. The film was co-written by Martin, composer Randy Newman (who contributes three songs to the soundtrack) and Saturday Night Live co-creator Lorne Michaels. The film was not well received by critics (Roger Ebert declared it his least favourite movie of the holiday season) and only went on to make $39 million at the box office, from a budget estimated at $25 million.
What's it about?
In 1916, the Goldsmith Pictures studios are facing a financial crisis and are forced to fire their three most popular stars - Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms and Ned Nederlander - collectively known as the Three Amigos. When the actors are turfed out of their studio-owned accommodation, they realise that they have lost everything in Hollywood. However, they soon receive a telegram from Spanish senorita Carmen inviting them to perform at her village, Santo Poco, for someone called El Guapo. Realising that this is a second chance, the three men head immediately for Mexico.
Except that they have misinterpreted the telegram - Santo Poco is besieged by El Guapo and his men and desperate for help, Carmen sought out gunslingers to help her fellow villagers. Seeing the Three Amigos on screen and believing them to be actual gunslingers, she sent the telegram that brought these men to Mexico. But as the actual danger of their situation becomes apparent, can Lucky, Ned and Dusty find it within themselves to be the heroes they've always pretended to be?
What's to like?
In an endearingly old-fashioned way, Three Amigos! has a hard-fought charm to it. It's reminiscent of the westerns of yesteryear when the same backlots were used time and again and actors often found themselves typecast within the Western genre - check out Arau's resume for an example. So in that respect, it feels like a proper Western despite the comedy and barbed dialogue.
Newman's songs are probably the best thing about the film, as one might expect. There is a lot of comic potential in this set-up, a fact that the makers of Galaxy Quest were quick to pick up on with almost the exact same plot. The film tries desperately hard to maintain some element of farce to proceedings but such misunderstands can only sustain a picture for so long. What I would have liked to see was some gentle spoofing of the Western itself - take the scene where the horses join in with the song around the campfire. This could, and should, have been brilliant. The fact that it isn't is one of the biggest movie disappointments of my lifetime.
- This film marks the first major appearance in a feature film by Martin Short as well as the only screenwriting credit (at time of writing) for Randy Newman.
- Newman also played the voice of the Singing Bush although it was digitally altered for the film.
- Four members of the cast would later appear in The Simpsons - Martin appears as Ray Patterson in one episode, Jon Lovitz had appeared many times as different characters, Phil Hartman was best known as the voice of Troy McLure while Jon Mantegna plays the mobster Fat Tony in a number of episodes.
What's not to like?
The problem is the characters - we care very little for these three idiots facing real bandits with real bullets because the movie neglects to show us what they're like. Martin makes a meal of the film, pushing Short and Chase especially to the sidelines to such an extent that I can't recall anything amusing either man said. The film badly loses its way halfway through with nonsense about invisible swordsmen and singing bushes but thankfully returns to more sensible territory for the finale.
The comedy also feels forced and flat - I'm not a lover of pun names for movie characters so I'm afraid Dusty Bottoms doesn't impress me much. If anything, I felt more sympathy for Arau's bemused bandit who is forced to confront these three idiots and if a film has you rooting for the bad guys then something has gone wrong somewhere. The film ran away from me like a unbroken stallion, sprinting into its own sunset and laughing at its own jokes, leaving me far behind. It's not what you'd call sophisticated - granted, it's not as puerile as the equally goofy Caddyshack but at least that had Rodney Dangerfield in it.
Should I watch it?
It may have its fans but I'm not one of them - Three Amigos! is a horrid misfire of a comedy which isn't anything like as funny as it thinks it is. The films tries everything to get a laugh out of its audience but I found it childish, churlish and nothing like as funny as I thought it might be. These three leads were at the peak of their powers in the mid-Eighties and yet, this film wastes all of their talents - not to mention those of director Landis, who isn't what you'd call inexperienced as a director.
Great For: nostalgic fans, children, forgiving fans of any of the leads
Not So Great For: anyone looking for a good comedy, Mexicans, out-of-work actors
What else should I watch?
The closest thing to Three Amigos! is the more relevant and insightful comedy Galaxy Quest which takes the same principal (unemployed actors forced to become their roles for real) but applies it to the geeky world of science fiction franchises like Star Trek. Tim Allen delivers the performance of his career as the wannabe captain of his own spaceship alongside the genuinely funny Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and the always brilliant Tony Shalhoub. Because it's so much more recognisable to viewers than the plight of silent film stars, it works much better than Three Amigos! and is much funnier as well. This premise was also revisited by Ben Stiller in the action comedy Tropic Thunder so who knows how many more films of this type there'll be in future?
Of course, comedy westerns all owe their existence to what remains the yardstick for this sub-genre - Mel Brooks' timeless Blazing Saddles. With its edgy comments on racial stereotyping, farting cowboys and ludicrous punch-ups, the film is like a runaway steam train that ploughs through all of the competition and refuses to stop until its heroes have taken a stretch limo into the sunset.
Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels & Randy Newman
Release Date (UK)
12th June, 1987
© 2015 Benjamin Cox