Once touted as a Steven Spielberg film, and with a variety of comic talents filling the roles, Three Amigos! was a box office disappointment that has become a cult hit. It doesn’t hurt that the film features distinctive costumes that mean you could only be watching a Three Amigos! movie, but there’s also the germ of the idea here that would go on to feature in Galaxy Quest; a group of actors are mistaken for the heroic roles they play in films, and asked to protect the inhabitants of a small Mexican town from deadly crime-lord El Guapo, played by The Wild Bunch’s Alfonso Arau . It’s a traditional comic narrative that worked for Bob Hope (The Paleface) or Morecambe and Wise (The Magnificent Two), and here features three reliable talents in Steve Martin, Martin Short and the hardy perennial of Chevy Chase.
There’s a number of other selling points here, from a classic Elmer Bernstein score to some songs from Randy Newman, including an acting cameo as a singing bush. But it’s also notable as a rare writing credit for both Newman and Saturday Night Live’s eminence grise Lorne Michaels, who presumably was happy to dig up the ancient skits and vaudevillian comedy featured here. Lucky Day (Martin) Dusty Bottoms (Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Short) are fired from their popular cinematic franchise by studio head Harry Flugleman (Joe Mantegna), assisted by SNL’s Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman. But not before the Amigos get a telegram from a pleading Mexican mother, with half the message cut to save money. Therefore the Amigos think they are to entertain the village with a show, not realising that their antics are only riling up their opponent more.
Three Amigos! hasn’t made the dent on pop culture that say Ghostbusters has, but it’s got a healthy share of decent visual gags, from the height of the wall that Lucky jumps down during their studio escape from to the choreographed Amigos salute. There’s also some neat dialogue, including ‘You can kiss me on the veranda’ and the self-less discussion about buying an orphanage when the mission is over. But there’s also a huge narrative problem; the Amigos are rumbled by the villagers as fakes halfway through the picture; even with a bit of luck and comic timing, it doesn’t make sense for the actors to ride to the rescue and defeat their deadly professional enemies, and the last half hour sags somewhat.
Two friends and I dressed as the Three Amigos for a fancy dress party many moons ago, and I’d thoroughly recommend the costume; easy to identify, looks great in photos, and perfect for that walk of shame the next morning. Three Amigos is a lightweight, relaxed vehicle which John Landis seems to have been unwilling to push too hard in any particular direction; it ends up as a tribute to traditional Hollywood tropes that celebrates without too much mocking. If nothing else, the campfire scene is a classic, with a variety of wild animals taking part in a sing-a-long, including a scene-stealing turtle.