‘Three Amigos’ Revisited: Still Charming And Singularly Strange At 30

¡Three Amigos! turned 30 this month, a basic cable classic of a certain kind. I had fond memories of the 1986 comedy, directed by John Landis, and written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman, that vague good feeling of something you enjoyed pre-adolescence. It retains classic status, or thereabouts, among my generation, or thereabouts (Gen Y, younger Gen X-ers, and older millennials), and to be sure, it’s been named one of the all-time greatest comedies in several respected listicles. Starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase, it’s an era straddler in many ways, combining legends of 70s SNL (Martin and Chase) with the 80s high concept comedy, co-starring Ebersol-era SNL star Short, and even bridging the gap to the later SNL casts of the 90s, with cameos by Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman. It was a combination of so many elements that never were before or never again would be combined.

Like so many things people like me bother writing about, it wasn’t well loved at the time, not even cracking 50% on RottenTomatoes (44%, as of current writing), not that RottenTomatoes was around at the time. It even earned a brutal (or actually just bored) one star from Roger Ebert, to go with its other lackluster entries.

“…what we have here is a shaggy chihuahua tale with endless bickering and pratfalls. The only other time the film spins off into inspired madness is when the boys confront a singing bush in the middle of the desert. […] You know it`s a boring comedy when you find yourself laughing only at the lead actors` costumes.” – Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“Broad, uneven western parody. […] …there’s not a lot of flesh on these cynically haphazard bones.” – Pat Graham, Chicago Reader

“The ideas to make “Three Amigos” into a good comedy are here, but the madness is missing. All great farces need a certain insane focus, an intensity that declares how important they are to themselves. […] My guess is they made it with too much confidence and not enough desperation.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“The happy-go-lucky Three Amigos is a picture to see when your expectations are down and you’ve already been to everything that’s good.” –Jay Boyar Orlando Sentinel

“Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase go south of the border for “Three Amigos,” the cinematic equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge. It’s a calamity of a comedy, the perfect complement to concession-stand nachos con cheez.” -Rita Kempley, Rita Kempley, Washington Post

“”Three Amigos” is likable, but it never really finds a distinctive style. Not quite parody and not quite serious, it’s more like a lengthy costume party.” –Janet Maslin, New York Times

While it’s tempting (and fun!) to bash shortsighted critics† for not getting a movie you love, I think Janet Maslin did get her nail close to the head:

Though ”Three Amigos” is the kind of skin-deep contemporary comedy that assembles its stars and then just coasts, it’s friendlier than most. And it contains a few elements that are destined for immortality. One of these is the Amigo salute, which should inspire its share of practitioners, though it’s best done in the company of like-minded individuals.

Is Three Amigos more memorable than funny? Maybe. It’s certainly memorable. When I started re-watching it, I felt like I could recite half the lines by heart and I hadn’t seen the thing in at least a decade. Another factor here is that Three Amigos undeniably falls apart in the third act. It begins as an old Hollywood parody, turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy, and then resolves itself by just sort of blowing up a bunch of stuff.

Was that messy third act the result of studio meddling? Almost every “fascinating facts about Three Amigos” listicle repeats the assertion that the studio did some kind of recut on it while Landis was on trial over the deaths on the set of the Twilight Zone, with the inference that it was against his will:

“the film was reportedly trimmed by the studio against his wishes…” –Entertainment Weekly, 2011

“[the film] was trimmed down by the studio for the initial version’s excessive length, which resulted in a few well-known performers being cut out of the movie completely.” –Splitsider, 2011

The Wikipedia entry reads “the studio heavily edited the film down after [Landis] submitted his final cut,” paraphrasing in a more damning way a Blu-ray review that actually read “Landis was on trial in connection with deaths during the filming of The Twilight Zone movie during the editing of ¡Three Amigos!, and the studio, the now-defunct Orion Pictures, made additional changes to the film after Landis delivered his cut.”

Would the John Landis cut have been different? It’s impossible to say, but if you watched Three Amigos and Animal House back to back, you’d assume blowing stuff up for lack of a better ending was Landis’s MO.

To listen to Landis himself, it sounds like he was less upset with the way the movie turned out than with the studio losing some of his outtakes, including a bit with Sam Kinison playing a cannibalistic bandit, and another with Fran Drescher as a rival starlet. That footage was still lost to history as of the Three Amigos blu-ray release in 2011. It’d be a nice piece of history, though it doesn’t sound like Landis would’ve included it in his cut of the film anyway. “I’m very sorry I couldn’t find the Sam Kinison material…[or] more of Fran Drescher, but it’s comedy taking its time and establishing the story,” Landis told Blu-Ray.com in 2011. “All of the trims we made were just to pick up the pace. That’s all.”

Whatever the case, the ending of the film probably explains a lot of the tepid reviews. A film’s ending tends to weigh heavily as we’re leaving the theater, and then recedes more and more with each passing year and subsequent cable and VHS viewing. That Three Amigos has become as much a historical document as it is a funny movie is something critics couldn’t have known at the time (Janet Maslin’s prescient predictions aside). How many other movies had (or tried to have, anyway) Martin, Chase, Short, Sam Kinison, the Nanny, and Joe Mantegna?

It was certainly more memorable than it was successful. Not that it was a huge flop either — Amigos ended up being the 24th highest-grossing film of 1986, going on to earn almost $40 million on a $25 million budget and doing strong rental business. The top three movies that year were Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and Platoon, while in its opening weekend, Three Amigos took the number two spot behind Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. Anyone else remember The Golden Child? At the very least, I think it’s fair to say Three Amigos has held up better than The Golden Child.

A Showbiz Parody Period Piece

The strangest thing about the original crop of Three Amigos reviews is that nearly all of them call the jokes in Amigos unoriginal, old, or well-worn. At this point I think we can say that Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder may have borrowed some from Three Amigos. But at the time? Roger Ebert was one of the few critics alleging unoriginality who actually cited sources, naming George Hamilton in Zorro: The Gay Blade as an influence. And who could forget Zorro: The Gay Blade?

Thirty years later, Three Amigos stands out as the most singular of the SNL movies (which I think it’s fair to call it, considering the three stars all had long associations with SNL and Lorne Michaels co-wrote it). Sure, there are the scenes all of us remember as bizarre, like the musical number in the desert with the crooning tortoise, or the invisible swordsman or the singing bush (voiced by Randy Newman himself, incidentally). But there are also the mere facts of the film. As far as I can tell, it’s Lorne Michaels’ only period piece. Most of the other SNL films involve anachronistic protagonists, where outdated clothes and tech are part of the joke — see MacGruber, Night At The Roxbury, The Ladies Man, Superstar, and Stuart Saves His Family sort of. Amigos actually commits to its premise in the way the others don’t. It’s set in 1916. Which, by the way, was not exactly the most parody-ripe time period, even in 1986.

Nonetheless, Amigos does a damned good job sending up the studio system of the silent film era, even if those aren’t the parts most of us remember. My favorite fact about the Oscars is that they essentially started as a studio-busting scheme concocted by a Machiavellian studio exec. “The best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” Louis B. Mayer once said.

You don’t hear that talked about much these days (nor in 1986, I’d imagine), let alone satirized in a dumb comedy. Yet there it was in some of Three Amigos first scenes.

The titular Three Amigos — Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), Lucky Day (Steve Martin), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short, in his first film) — show up in the opulent studio office of a cigar-chomping studio head Harry Flugleman, played by Joe Mantegna, who patiently explains why their latest film, Those Darn Amigos was a box office flop. “All the great Amigo pictures had one thing in common: Three wealthy Spanish landowners who fight for the rights of peasants. But then! Came Those Darn Amigos. Nobody cares about three wealthy Spanish landowners on a weekend in Manhattan. We strayed from the formula and we paid the price!”

Meanwhile, Mantegna’s flunkies, played by Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman, explain some of the new Amigos films the studio has in store for them. Incidentally, neither Lovitz nor Hartmann were on SNL at the time. As Landis told Blu-ray.com: “I had seen [Lovitz and Hartman], and I thought they were so great. Lorne, at that time, wasn’t interested in what he called ‘West Coast comics.’ So, I hired them to be in the movie so he could see them, and then he hired them.”

Anyway, Mantegna and the gang pitch the Amigos on a “Cochise picture,” at which point Steve Martin starts trying to throw their star weight around (“I don’t think you know who you’re talking to…”) and promptly gets them fired. Of course, it’s all mostly an excuse to contrast Mantegna’s bellicose studio exec and Lovitz and Hartman’s fast-talking flunkies (are there two actors for whom old-timey radio voice was a bigger part of their careers?) with the Amigos as vain schmucks, but it’s rare to see such a period-accurate satire, and used as a mere jumping off point for the wordplay and slapstick.

There’s also the way the gang recoils in unison when Mantegna starts yelling at them — the first example of their spontaneously-synchronized movement and instinct for standing in compositionally-friendly positions, which becomes a running Amigos gag, and is actually pretty subtle at times.

Even aside from the historical showbiz parody (which has been done to great success in some later movies, from Shakespeare in Love to The Artist to Hail, Caesar!), Three Amigos had an entire subplot about some German arms dealers.

German bad guys have been a staple of American movies for 60 years (give or take), but having one in a comedy set in Mexico in 1916 only really makes sense as a reference to the Zimmerman Telegram of 1917 (in which the German foreign office proposed a German-Mexican alliance against the U.S., the discovery of which helped push the U.S. into WWI). How often would you find a semi-obscure history reference in a Lorne Michaels-produced movie starring SNL castmembers? Pretty much never, outside of Three Amigos, which is why it stands out. I love a squeeze of smart in my stupid.

Something For The English Majors

Speaking of things you don’t normally see much of in a silly comedy, Three Amigos is particularly notable for its reliance on oddly dry language jokes. The most memorable moment of the movie, aside from the salute, is probably “…would you say ‘a plethora,’ Jefe?”

That might also be the most successful joke of the film, which begins with El Guapo (played brilliantly by Alfonso Arau) savoring the alliterative joy of “a plethora of piñatas,” and evolves into him trying trick Jefe into the old “boss bad guy brutally dresses down his henchman” trope. Only Jefe, played by Tony Plana, whose line reads are perfection this entire scene, doesn’t take the bait.

“Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect, and education, but could it be that once again you are angry at something else and looking to take it out on me?”

Jefe correctly surmises that El Guapo is just anxious about turning 40 the next day. Which feels like a psychoanalysis joke, wrapped in an English joke, underpinned by this wonderfully unique El Guapo character they’ve created. In El Guapo they’ve managed to combine Badass Bandito, Smug Colonial, and Foppish Dandy (he’s got a carnation on his lapel with a plaid vest in addition to the de rigeur bandoliers) into one guy — and it actually works!

“Plethora of piñatas,” by the way, isn’t the only joke that feels like it was written by and for English majors.

The very first scene, in fact, when we’re first introduced to the downtrodden villagers of Santa Poco (a name that wouldn’t actually exist in Mexico since the genders of the words don’t match), Carmen (played by Patrice Martinez) and her son Rodrigo (Philip Gordon) want to telegram the Amigos to warn about the “horrible, evil, murdering, villainous monster” El Guapo, but don’t have enough money. The telegraph operator offers to simplify. In his “10 peso version,” El Guapo becomes, simply, “the infamous” El Guapo. “It means murderous, evil… all like you said.”

Which of course sets up the Amigos’ mistaken belief that El Guapo is a movie star and not a filthy, green-toothed bandito. “Oh, Dusty. This El Guapo, he’s not just famous, he’s infamous.”

All through the script there are these Seinfeldian reliances on language tics and subtle emphasis changes (“they rode all over town shooting their pistolas in the air. And they called us scum-sucking pigs. …Us!”). In fact, for a movie with so much Three Stooges-esque slapstick, a lot of Three Amigos’ best jokes are small. Like the German badass (Kai Wulff) who, after he shoots up Santa Poco’s saloon, punctuates his spree of murderous violence with “…anyvone else viss a comment?”

Supporting Characters Get the Best Lines

One thing you may have noticed about the scenes mentioned above is that none of them involved the purported “stars” of the movie. Supporting characters get a lot of the biggest laughs in Three Amigos, and that, I suspect, is also a big reason critics at the time didn’t like it so much. Critics always hate it when the big comedy stars are “wasted” not being funny, as if it matters where the funny comes from. But if you fake a handoff to the stud running back in order to throw a touchdown, was he really wasted? Surprise and misdirection are just as important in comedy as in football (so I’ve heard — sports!).

Point being, where most of the SNL gang’s films from Amigos on out would be, for the most part, performer-driven affairs, Amigos had a notable emphasis on world-building. And, from El Guapo’s gang of banditos on down, some of the best extras in the business.

Amigos is unabashedly weird, and it commits hard to its own frontier aesthetic. Perhaps that was a product of the time in which it came out, when a movie full of SNL stars didn’t need to be preceded by a popular recurring sketch. As Landis described it, “the eighties is the last era of the studio system.”

Which maybe explains all the high concepts (that, and cocaine). In any case, you need a real grimy frontier town to contrast against the Amigos’ shiny dandiness, and Three Amigos’ production designers really earned their paychecks. As did the saloon bartender, one of the all-time most memorable single-serving comedy cameos:

Did you know this man’s name is “Fred Asparagus?” Well, sort of. Asparagus was a stand-up comic, born Fred Revele, who had bit parts in 16 films and a handful of television shows in the 80s and 90s. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1998, but every aspiring comedy actor should study his work in Three Amigos, which is a textbook example of how to steal scenes without hijacking them. He’s strange and memorable, and bigger than his character’s words on the page, but never in a way that’s not believable in the scene.

“But try not to get in too much troubles, okay? Ha ha ha….”

Actors Playing Actors

Another fun aspect of Three Amigos that makes it stand out from a lot of SNL cast member movies is that the leads are fish out of water, but mostly because they’re so camp. Think about how many Adam Sandler movies have involved him playing some form of shrieking oaf who beats people up (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), and then contrast that with the Amigos singing “My Little Buttercup” to a gang of toughs in a saloon. It’s funny because they’re sissies!

Well, not exactly, but I think there’s a particularly enjoyable type of humor that comes from hitting yourself so close to home that it hurts a little. The knowing, self-deprecating gags run throughout Three Amigos. Surely they were thinking of someone they knew when they conceived the bit in the saloon when Lucky (Martin) tells Dusty (Chase), “Dusty, there’s a piano over there…” and Dusty’s picking up his drink and walking towards it before he can even finish his false-modest “Oh, but I haven’t played in so long…”

As much of a pain in the ass I’ve always heard Chevy Chase was to work with, there are few roles of his that don’t make me think he was worth putting up with. (Of course, I’m not the one who had to put up with him, so…). A “performer’s false modesty” joke is fairly rare, especially one this well done (see also — Jay Baruchel weirded out by Seth Rogen’s L.A. friends in This Is The End, the “knack for world building” guy in La La Land).

Likewise, I think you can infer from Ned Nederlander’s dull, name-droppy Dorothy Gish story — the punchline of which is that he, Ned, is pretty great — that Three Amigos writers had heard a few of their own “Dorothy Gish stories.”

“One time Dorothy Gish was visiting me on the set of Little Neddy, Grab Your Gun. And she came up to me… and she looked me in the face. I’d never met her. I just know her from the films. You know, Dorothy Gish! Lillian’s sister. And she looked me in the eyes and she said ‘Young man, you have got it.’ And… Dorothy Gish! It’s a true story.”

In general, Three Amigos seemed much more willing to go full oaf with its protagonists than most of its ilk that came later. Tommy Boy, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Roxbury — virtually all of them end with the guy getting the girl, even the guy started out the film as mentally challenged and/or homicidal. In that context it’s noteworthy that in Three Amigos’ final scene, when the damsel in distress, when Carmen kisses Lucky on the lips, and he tells her, “I’ll come back one day,” she responds “…Why?”

So, okay, I lied, the third act isn’t a total disaster. And even if it doesn’t work (the script never really comes up with a great way the The Three Amigos could actually defeat El Guapo’s gang), it’s a film that’s memorable beyond its failings. In the cheap, easily imitatable + makes a great Halloween costume way, sure, but also in the way that so little of it could or would ever be repeated. It was the only movie Chevy Chase starred in with either Steve Martin or Martin Short. It’s Randy Newman’s only screenwriting credit, and remains, amazingly, Lorne Michaels’ only feature film writing credit. It’s one of so many SNL cast movies that came before and after and yet much stranger than any of them. It’s a weird, joke-dense little anachronism, the kind of movie where you find new things to enjoy on each subsequent rewatch, even if it didn’t bowl you over upon first viewing.

†Sidenote: It’s funny to constantly hear that criticism is dying, and then go re-read old reviews like this from the alleged halcyon days. A lot of old print criticism reads like overworked hacks on strict deadlines with limited space trying to cobble together their finest zingers with little context or analysis while chomping a cigar and sweating into a manual typewriter. Though I’m admittedly fascinated with the description of Chevy Chase as “a Mr. Potato-head piñata.”