Directed by : John Landis
Starring : Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Alfonso Arau, and Tony Plana
Plot : Silent movie era Hollywood. The Three Amigos, three arrogant superstars, are fired by their studio and ejected from the studio lot. Accepting what they take to be an invitation to visit a small Mexican town and replay their most famous moments, they soon realise that the situation they have found themselves in is real, and the bandits they are acting opposite are carrying loaded pistols...
Why? : John Landis is a funny director. No, seriously. He makes comedies. And he makes very funny comedies at that. There was a point where he could put nary a foot wrong. Just look at his credits and you will see a master film-maker at work. You can dispute me – you can wheel out all of your favourite film-makers, all the Scorseses and Spielbergs and, I don't know, Charles Bands you want. I won't dispute you, and will quietly explain that I wasn't disparging the directors YOU like, I was simply stating that John Landis is – or at least was – among the very best. He directed “American Werewolf in London.” He directed “Blues Brothers”. He directed “Trading Places.” He directed “Into the Night”. “Spies Like Us.”
Martin Scorsese directed Michael Jackson's “Bad.” John Landis directed Michael Jackson's “Thriller.”
Stephen Spielberg directed “1941”. John Landis directed “National Lampoon's Animal House.”
Charles S Band directed “Blood Dolls.” John Landis directed “Innocent Blood.”
Did I mention he had a hand in writing all his movies too? And that he started his film career as a stuntman? Time to re-evaluate the auteur theory friends. This man is the very definition.
So, okay, obviously John Landis has a very particular niche and he has stuck to it almost mercilessly – his was the anarchic comedy, the MAD-magazine comic strip come to life. But what was so good about him, certainly until he hit the nineties and MTV movie-making took over, was that he was a craftsman. He knew how to ground the humour, the comedy, in a world of it's own. He trades in absurdist humour that has a strange logic in the worlds he creates. Not unlike the comedies of Laurel and Hardy, his affection for the people who populate his movies still glares from the screen. But there's an anarchic stream that runs through all of his films, a screw-the-man attitude that he has kept right up to the disappointing but still pretty fun “Burke and Hare.”
His films have always had a “meta” quality to them, often breaking the fourth wall, by having characters suddenly look to or address the camera as if looking for support from the audience ( best examples are in Eddie Murphy's last funny film “Coming to America” and a horrific jump-scare during the transformation scene in “American Werewolf...” ) If you know where to look you will find endless background jokes, film references and many, many cameos from film directors Landis admires scattered throughout his filmography ( if you want the ultimate fan-boy reference to your peer-influences, you may as well just jam those peers into your movie - see below for a few of those cameos. )
So, at fifteen, Three Amigos was the first film I ever saw Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in. It's also the first film I've ever seen a singing bush in too, though for personal reasons I won't tell you what the last one was. I fell in love with this film from the opening song ( yep, there's singing in this here comedy, songs courtesy of bouncing twit Randy Newman ) and just continued to gaze deeply into it's slightly hazy eyes throughout. The love affair has lasted.
Following the three comedians as they travel from their pampered Hollywood lifestyle as silent movies stars, to the dry, dusty and violent old-west world of the fictional Mexican town Santo Poco, the comedy in this film is mostly derived from the men's spoiled-life naivety as they encounter the simple, plain lifestyle of the
villagers, the hardened violence of the bandits, and the harsh reality of a bullet in the arm.
A straight out comedy, with no agenda for anything other than laughs, this could technically be called a spoof ( it plays riffs off the popular westerns, such as “The Magnificent Seven”, and the brilliantly funny Alfonso Arau – technically playing it straight but clearly in on the joke – had made a career of playing Mexican bandits in the sixties and seventies ) but thanks to Martin and Landis' script, and the comedian's off the wall style, Three Amigos transcends spoof and becomes it's own beast.
With the bar having been raised in Western Spoofs by Mel Brooks' overrated “Blazing Saddles” ( it's funny, in parts, and truly angry when it comes to racism down in no small part to Richard Pryor's input, but it has far too many duff gags, Mel Brooks mugs all the way through it, and it has one hell of a bullshit cop out ending ) it was smart of Landis and Martin
( plus third writer, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels ) to concentrate on character comedy and sight gags, muting the spoof-style gags in favour of deeply hilarious absurdism. Just witness the argument between the three men over Chevy Chase's accidental shooting of The Invisible Swordsman.
There's the impression throughout the film that Landis let Martin, Chase, and Short improvise, and certainly there is anecdotal evidence that this is so, not least of all in Landis describing the moment he realised that Chevy Chase had pulled off a scene-stealing moment in the background ( involving an accidental transfer from one horse to another ) that he had not even noticed, until editing the film.
Anecdotal evidence ( and an hilariously awkward with the three men on set ) also suggests that Chevy Chase was a nightmare to work with while shooting the movie ( what's new? ) which is a shame as an adult to find out. Chevy has always been my favourite funny man, and it has always been his odd mix of out and out slapstick and quite bitter comedy ad-libs that I have emulated in my own writing and stage performances. This stems from this movie, and it's a shame to learn that he was so disliked in the end. But, just as discovering that everybody who worked with William Shatner during Star Trek hated his guts doesn't actually change your pleasure of viewing the series ( and maybe even adds to it! ), knowing that Chase was a bit of a dick at this point in his career doesn't really hurt an enjoyment of his performance.
All three men play ( and are played ) to their strengths. Martin is warm, kind of uncle-cuddly, and utilises his elastic physicality brilliantly throughout. Chase is straight up naive, and again very much plays on his ability for sometimes ridiculous physical gags ( not unlike Peter Sellars in his earlier Clouseau incarnations. ) Short is a loveable, giggling goof, young, naive and rubber-bodied. The one-lines in this film wouldn't be the sharpest ( Martin's ability to create silly play-on-words influences the script tremendously ) but the sharpest line in the film describes these guys perfectly : when asked which one she likes the most, one of the female villagers replies “I like the one who is not so smart.” A pause. The confused retort : “which one is that?”
For Landis' part, he marshals three egos, a period setting, some epic set-pieces, hilarious sight-gags, ridiculous word-play, shoot-outs, horses, sing-a-longs, and the best comedy moment EVER ( “you SHOT the invisible swordsman!” ) into one, cohesive, beautifully shot, perfect-comedy-timing boasting, ninety-minute movie.
I don't know if it's the best film Martin, Chase, and Short have done. I'd certainly pine if I didn't have “LA Story,” “Fletch,” and “Innerspace” in the oul DVD storage hut. But to my mind it's the warmest, funniest, silliest thing each man has ever done. It has seen me through twenty three years of highs and lows, and I still love it to this day.
I'm glad they never did a sequel. But I wish they had.
Selected Landis' Director Cameo
AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON - Russ Meyers
NATIONAL LAMPOONS ANIMAL HOUSE - Frank Oz
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON - Frank Oz
THE BLUES BROTHERS - Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg.
INNOCENT BLOOD - Dario Argento, Frank Oz, Sam Raimi, and Michael Ritchie,
INTO THE NIGHT - Jack Arnold, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Amy Heckerling, Jim Henson, Colin Higgins , Lawrence Kasdan, John Landis, Jonathan Lynn, Paul Mazursky, Daniel Petrie, Don Siegel, and Roger Vadim
SPIES LIKE US - Michael Apted, Martin Brest, Joel Coen, Larry Cohen, Costa-Gavras, Terry Gilliam, Frank Oz, Sam Raimi, Ray Harryhausen
TRADING PLACES Frank Oz
BEVERLY HILLS COP III - Martha Coolidge, Joe Dante, Arthur Hiller, George Lucas, Peter Medak, George Schaefer, Barbet Schroeder, and John Singleton and Ray Harryhausen.
So since I've enjoyed writing this list so much ( and since it's kept me out of trouble, more or less ) I'm going to keep going with the lists, if it's okay with you. If it isn't, up yours. This is my blog, in case you hadn't gotten that from MY name being in the title, and NOT yours. Jesus, the cheek!
As someone who studies and - let's face it - over-analyses movies, I'm going to start delving now into MY influences, the directors that I admire and, if I were John Landis, would have as a cameo in one of my pieces, were I the calibre of Hollywood movie maker that could command that kind of cameo.
You don't HAVE to keep reading, dear bloggist, but I do appreciate it when you do!
So here I go, compiling once again.
Thanks for reading.
See you next wednesday!