Here at the bustling Stand By For Mind Control laboratories we often like our movies intense, weird, dark, slow, depressing, and liable to leave permanent psychological scars. We like movies that don’t tell us what they’re about, whose hidden meanings lodge themselves in our skulls like Cronenbergian parasites feasting on our brainwaves, movies with no heroes, no villians, and no happy endings. Also, we like giant bugs.
So it is that sometimes, to relieve the pressure of watching that three hour German silent film from the ‘20s, or that double bill about deformities and what it means to be human, we want to watch something not merely silly, but downright stupid silly. We want to watch a singing bush and a gaggle of hooting aliens.
Also, we wouldn’t mind if implied in our silly movies was the idea that even a couple of regular (if not slightly deranged) chaps like us could, if asked nicely, save a Mexican village from rampaging, piñata-bearing banditos, or an entire alien species from an angry talking vegetable.
Would you like that too? Marvelous. Because for this week’s double bill we bring you faux heroes turned real. To wit:
¡Three Amigos! (’86)
Few comedies are as utterly, unapologetically silly as ¡Three Amigos!, which perhaps explains why it was not warmly received when it came out. Silliness is not widely beloved. Go figure. Not that it bombed or anything, but its reception was merely warmish. Personally, I recall being 15 in the Bijou Theater falling out of my seat I was laughing so hard at the singing bush. Which is not figurative. I mean I actually fell out of my seat.
It was directed by John Landis and written by Steve Martin, Saturday Night Live impresario Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman. If you only know Newman from his treacly Disney movie songs, take a moment and immediately listen to, at the very least, his albums Good Old Boys and Sail Away. There. See? The man is a musical genius.
Back to the movie. Set in 1916, it tells the story of silent comic film stars the Three Amigos, wealthy Mexican landowners who fight to protect the poor, played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. They’re fired when they ask for more money, but as luck would have it, a telegram arrives, asking them to put on a show in the Mexican town of Santo Poco. Unbeknownst to the Amigos, the letter was written by a woman and her son who imagine their exploits to be real. Their town is actually threatened by the very real bandit El Guapo (Alfonso Arau).
So the Amigos head south, and extreme goofiness ensues. Like when they perform their hit musical number “My Little Buttercup” in a bar full of ruffians. And when they encounter the singing bush (Newman) and the invisible swordsman, a moment that exists on a still sillier plane than the rest of the movie. And when they first encounter El Guapo, and prance around like nincompoops before getting shot at. And most of the other scenes, too.
Three of El Guapo’s men come to town on their own. The Amigos think their show is on, so they do their wacky Three Amigos bit. And the bandits ride away! Hooray! Only then El Guapo and all of his men show up. Things don’t go as well. The Amigos admit to being actors, and run off in disgrace, leaving El Guapo free to terrorize the town, kidnap women, and throw himself a birthday party.
But what do the Amigos have to go home to? Nothing. So they decide to become real heroes. Quite a bit of silly heroics later, the day is saved. The faux heroes become real heroes, and ride off into the sunset.
Your mileage may vary with this one. If you like the silly, this one’s for you. Because goddammit, it’s awesome, I tells ya! But okay, fine, if dumb jokes make you angry, not so much.
Next up is a movie that doesn’t credit ¡Three Amigos! at all, but is nevertheless pretty damn close to being a remake. Like when Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars. Sort of. Anyway:
Galaxy Quest (’99)
I’d tell you the plot of this one, but really, it’s exactly the same but for the details. Instead of 1916 silent film stars, we have modern-day, has-been TV stars, who spend their days at science fiction conventions signing autographs for nerdy fans of their long since canceled show, Galaxy Quest. Instead of poor Mexican villagers threatened by a bandito, we have aliens, the Thermians, threatened by lizardish alien monster bad guy, Sarris (who the interwebs tell me is named after famous film critic Andrew Sarris).
You can imagine what happens next. Tim Allen plays Captain Kirk, er, Commander Taggert. Hungover, he winds up on the aliens’ spaceship thinking it’s a nerd’s basement. When faced with Sarris on the viewscreen, he talks tough, lets loose with the lasers, and seems to save the day. Sound familiar?
Taggart figures out what’s going on, and gets the rest of the crew to join him back at the alien ship. They still think he’s joking. One of the funniest scenes is when the rest of the crew is teleported to the ship and the aliens, forgetting to mask their true, octopus/elephant/monster forms, stick probes in their faces. Well, it’s funnier than it sounds.
The cast includes Sigourney Weaver as the dumb blonde, Alan Rickman as the Spock character, Tony Shalhoub as a very Dude-like engineer, and Sam Rockwell as a red-shirt sure he’s going to die. Enrico Colantoni plays the leader of the Thermians, a very cheerfully weird race of aliens on the brink of extinction. He’s damn funny. The Thermians are the best part, well, along with Rickman, who nails the bitter British actor fed up with his crappy sci-fi dialogue being quoted back at him by everyone he meets.
The first half of Galaxy Quest is a lot funnier than the second. Like most spoofs, the funny gets limp once the plot takes over, but it’s nevertheless consistently amusing. As far as satire goes, they hit the Star Trek bullseye—though the target, one has to admit, is about six inches away. This is not a daring movie in any way. But it’s not trying to be. It’s got one thing on its mind: to gently mock Star Trek and its fans, and to do it lovingly. Which sounds awful, I know. But they actually pull it off. Did I mention how great Alan Rickman is?
As a special nerd bonus, that is, for a very specific kind of nerd, the voice of the spaceship’s on-board computer is supplied by Joe Frank, best known for his exceptionally strange KCRW radio show in the ’90s, Somewhere Out There. When you’ve got 18 minutes to spare, check out this piece of his. Seriously. Check it out. Go. See? Amazing stuff.
And now! Yes! Special for you! Do you love this plot so much you want to see it a third time? You are a lucky person! For now we present, for the first time in recorded history, a special bonus third feature, for the committed (or soon to be committed) among you:
A Bug’s Life (’98)
I’ll keep this short. There are these ants and they’re being terrorized by evil crickets. One ant is sent away to find warriors to protect them. He comes across—circus bugs doing a show! Our ant hero thinks they’re for real, signs them up to save his ant brethren. The circus bugs think they’re being hired to do their act…
Yeah. You see where this is going. Etc. and so on, fake heroes become real heroes, ants are saved.
And once again, is any credit given to ¡Three Amigos!? Nope, not a bit. That’s movies for ya, kid. It ain’t pretty. But, if you’re lucky, it’s funny.