¡Three Amigos! Review
Take three (well, two and a half) of the greatest American comedians, add the head honcho behind Saturday Night Live, and stir in one maverick director. You’ve got all the ingredients right there for a smash-hit comedy classic, only it didn’t turn out that way for 1986’s ¡Three Amigos!. Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short were the funnymen in question, starring as three bumbling silent movie actors who get thrown off the studio lot and end up taking a gig that they think is a personal appearance, when in fact they’ve been hired by a young woman from Santa Poco, a small Mexican village, to defend it from the feared bandito El Guapo. The villagers believe that these men really are the sharp-shooting heroes they’ve seen on screen, and all sorts of misunderstandings ensue when the trio arrive in town.
¡Three Amigos! tallies nicely with director John Landis’ perpetual fascination with life’s losers, those “fish out of water” who somehow manage to come good in the end. But that same formula, coupled with a period Western story and a curious collection of talent (Chase’s star was on the wane, Martin was moving into dramedy with stuff like Roxanne, and Short was yet to break out) led to meagre box office returns on this occasion. And yet, 26 years later the film still has its devotees, in terms of both general audiences and the movie industry itself. Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder owe more than a debt to ¡Three Amigos! it seems.
The movie doesn’t showcase Landis’ edgy and subversive style to any great degree, this being more of a star vehicle (it was co-written by Steve Martin and SNL creator Lorne Michaels) than his previous efforts. When Steve Spielberg passed on the project it ended up with Landis, and opting for a 'safer' studio picture was perhaps a conscious move by the director after the deadly consequences of shooting Twilight Zone: The Movie, although ¡Three Amigos! does exhibit Landis’ slightly crazed Looney Tunes vibe to the physical comedy and occasional breakage of the ‘fourth wall’. And while it may not contain any deep social commentary, it’s a broad dig at the movies in general, revealing these actors to be pampered buffoons who barely have a brain cell between them. But it also pays homage; the nod to Singin' In The Rain is a nice touch, as we see a billboard advertising The Dueling Cavalier (it's actually part of the excised subplot with Fran Drescher's Lina Lamont-style character). And the allusions to The Magnificent Seven are obvious, not least the fact that the two movies had the same composer in Elmer Bernstein.
It seems churlish to moan about the inevitably choppy narrative but I’ll mention it all the same, as the film takes a very weird detour about halfway through and feels like a big chunk of it was cut out. Still, we’re not paying for a tightly plotted story, it’s the funny that we’ve come for, and ¡Three Amigos! delivers in spades. The humour often has a dry, self-indulgent quality that makes it feel very modern, and perhaps is a reason why the movie didn’t do better at the time, although there’s an undercurrent of genuine friendship and naiveté, rather than the cruel spite that underpins contemporary comedy. Jokes are carried on for what seems like minutes at a time about decidedly unfunny subjects, which in turn makes them funny. You will never use the word ‘plethora’ in the same way again. There are also some bizarre little interludes that don’t make a great deal of sense, but which are funny nonetheless. There's even a song or two.
The actors all do a great job. Steve Martin brings his trademark ‘frustrated schmuck’ persona to the table as Lucky Day, playing the straight man to Chevy Chase’s insouciant performance as Dusty Bottoms and Martin Short’s sweet and slightly manic turn as little Ned Nederlander. Alphonso Arau sends up his bad guy image from The Wild Bunch as the dastardly El Guapo, with his right hand man Jefe played nicely by Tony Plana (whose costume bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Captain Jack Sparrow). Patrice Martinez plays villager Carmen with a cute sense of wild-eyed optimism, and look out for a cameo from Joe Mantegna as irascible studio head Harry Flugleman, with Jon Lovitz and the late Phil Hartmann as his lackeys.
¡Three Amigos! is not a film that stands out on the résumés of all those involved, but it was ahead of its time in some ways, and seems to have gotten funnier with age. The slapstick silliness and oddball skits that appealed to me as a kid are still gut-bustingly funny now, and as an adult I can better appreciate the dryer moments. It's not perfect by any means, but if you haven't seen it for a few years then it's well worth giving it another spin.
¡Three Amigos! comes to Blu with a 1.85 widescreen encode. The underlying transfer has come from a positive element, owing to the combination of white (negative density) and black (positive) print artefacts that occasionally pop up. It’s got some fading down the left hand side too. So far, so unimpressive, and the overall picture quality lives down to these initial impressions.
The opticals look terrible, as expected, but sadly the quality does not dramatically improve outside of any titles, fades etc. Trailing outlines are visible in some shots which is a tell-tale sign of noise reduction, and although there is visible grain it’s very sluggish in motion and tends to obscure fine detail. There’s some edge enhancement on display too, which also contributes to the lack of detail. What I find amusing is that this image will still look very “grainy” to the casual observer, so why did they even bother with the DNR?
Colour is fairly flat and ill-defined, with an odd yellow hue to the trio’s faces in the Flugleman sequence (which isn’t there in the extended version of the scene in the extras). The ham-fisted lighting of the movie is more apparent too, with obvious fill that casts an ugly greenish tinge on people’s faces. As mentioned, detail is usually poor on anything other than a static shot, and the blacks are hazy and murky.
John Landis has spoken of transferring his movies in many interviews, and he mentioned the Amigos! fairly recently. It always sounds like he knows what he’s doing, but – with the greatest respect to Mr. Landis – he’s got some funny ideas about what constitutes a “good” transfer. I’m not questioning his right to get his movies looking the way he wants them to look, yet that doesn’t mean I have to like what I’m seeing. Too many of his efforts end up with the same appearance on Blu-ray, with smeary grain, appallingly low levels of detail and screwy colour. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not expecting Michael Bay style widescreen glossiness from a John Landis film, but something that doesn’t look like an ancient transfer crippled with noise reduction and edge enhancement would be nice once in a while.
The movie was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo, and while the DVD preserved that 2.0 mix it’s been upgraded to discrete 5.1 for this lossless DTS-HD Master Audio presentation. There isn’t an ever-present sound field, the rears being used for the occasional spot effect rather than constant ambience, although said effects are quite convincing, apart from the stock gunshots which are as lifeless as they’ve always been. Dialogue can sometimes sound a little thin, but mostly it holds up well.
Elmer Bernstein’s music benefits the most, being spread across the front speakers with surprisingly forceful support from the LFE channel, which is otherwise subdued during the action beats. That’s something which tends to happen with remixes like this, as it's only the music which held any significant bass information in the original mix, and that’s what’s been preserved here. The only thing that gives this away as 5.1 is the discrete rears. That’s not a complaint, but more of an observation. All too often movies get remixed with scant consideration as to the original intent, and respectful efforts like this allow us to have some multi-channel fun without straying too far from the original remit.
We don’t get much in terms of extras. There's a 5-minute promo interview with the lead trio, which was shot in 1986 and looks like it, and a 20-minute selection of deleted and extended scenes which are prefaced with a text introduction from Landis.
The film's trims and outtakes were junked, and the rare footage we see here comes from a preview print which was fortunately salvaged (just like the extended version of The Blues Brothers). There’s an alternate opening set in Santa Poco which is quite boring and was deservedly cut, a longer version of the scene with Flugleman that gives us a glimpse of Fran Drescher’s deleted role (and also gives context to a line which has been deleted from this Blu-ray version of the film), plus a few extra seconds of El Guapo arranging his bizarre photo tableaux, and a tiny shred of extra attitude from Dusty.
The package is rounded off with a miniature reprint of the entertaining Chase/Short/Martin/Landis interview which Empire magazine conducted for the 25th Anniversary of the film. It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that HBO didn’t want to pony up the cash to get the cast reunited for a retrospective documentary, which is disappointing but not surprising.
Oh, one more thing: The disc is locked to Region A, so potential importers beware.
¡Three Amigos! doesn't hit every target it aims for, but I’ve always loved it and laughed ‘til I cried at certain points when watching the Blu-ray. Picture quality is sub-par, looking overly processed and downright ugly, although the audio fares better with a clean, consistent 5.1 mix that rarely betrays its mid '80s heritage. Extras are sadly limited to a short archival interview, some long-lost deleted scenes and a reprint of a magazine article.