Three Amigos tells the story of three movie stars passed their prime who must fight to find new meaning in their lives. This plot serves as a disappointingly apt metaphor for the film itself, which seems to have been crafted with so much studio hubris that it can rarely take advantage of some of the biggest stars in comedy. In fact, the premise of Three Amigos seems to be less about the Amigos themselves so much as testing the idea that, if you take a pair of comedy legends and let Martin Short stand next to them smiling for long enough, everything else will just sort itself out. While Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Short can’t help but be occasionally funny, the film never realizes any of their full potential, instead mostly devolving into a drab hodgepodge of mixed genres and missed opportunities.
Carmen (Patrice Martinez) lives in the tiny Mexican village of Santo Poco, which is being extorted by the notorious bandit “El Guapo” (Alfonso Arau). When she sees a silent film featuring The Three Amigos, a trio of sparkly gunfighters, she is immediately impressed with their display of strength, unflappable courage, and affordable prices. Each Amigo possess a unique skill and increasingly silly name. Lucky Day (Martin) is a master with a lasso, Ned Nederlander (Short) is an expert marksman, and Dusty Bottoms (Chase) is as deft with a piano as he is at pretending to have a useful skill. Through a heavily edited telegram and a complete failure to understand how movies work, Carmen lures the Amigos to Mexico for what they believe is a personal appearance worth ten thousand pesos.
What follows is a comedy of errors based largely on the premise that the Amigos are too dumb to ask follow up questions. Also, the inhabitants of Mexico can all speak perfectly good English, except when it’s convenient for the plot. It’s a thin setup, but all three actors playing the Amigos have starred in films that did more with less, and could have been a launching point for some top-notch comedy. However, what really keeps the picture from taking off is that it never really settles on an effective tone to make use of the main cast. It fluctuates between the plodding emptiness of spaghetti westerns and the genteel goofiness of the silent film era, all while never really capturing either successfully.
Too much of Three Amigos humor revolves around the Amigos wandering into an endless series of misunderstandings and smiling like idiots. To be fair, it’s a skill that Chase, Martin, and Short are all quite good at and does deliver some of the film’s biggest laughs. When Ned and Lucky perform their classic dance routine, “My Little Buttercup,” to a roomful of terrified villagers who mistake them for a pair of German tough guys, they deliver the sort of deliciously cringe-worthy awkwardness that would make even the writers of The Office squirm. In one of Chase’s finest scenes, Dusty happily wastes his water canteen while his compatriots die of thirst in the background. And Short takes full advantage of his trademark overacting when Ned, much like C-3PO on Endor, tells a rapt audience about the time he was first anointed as a movie star. Scenes like these make excellent use of obliviousness, reaction shots, and the trio’s impeccable timing.
Sadly, these moments true hilarity are few and far between. For the most part, Three Amigos earns its PG rating by keeping the jokes clean, safe, and ultimately sterile while the plot lumbers from point to point with no real rhyme or reason. The Amigos decide to become real-life heroes based solely on the fact that it’s worse to be disappointing than shot. On their way to rescue their maiden fair, they stop for a bat-roast and musical number so unnecessary it would make the Marx Brothers cringe. Then, when they finally arrive at the bandit’s camp, the collection of skills they’ve amassed by pretending to be heroes somehow turns them into an unstoppable team of actual heroes. Ned just so happens to be a real expert marksman and mildly competent fighter pilot; Lucky possesses the strength to single-handedly free himself from a set of wall chains; and Dusty has enough charm to continue calling himself a lead actor, even as he fades into the background. It’s all just a little too clichéd, too dumb, and too easy.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars.
Children of the 1980s who grew up with Three Amigos could be forgiven for having a sentimental attachment to this film. The family-friendly humor offers enough glimpses of its stars’ brilliance to entice a new generation of fans unfamiliar with Chase, Martin and Short’s better work. Still, the script is ultimately unworthy of their talents, and Director John Landis’ tributes to the bygone silent film era comes across as too superficial to ever feel satisfying. For most, this will be a movie best enjoyed in YouTube clips and hazy memories.