There’s hardly a moment in “Three Amigos” (citywide) that isn’t silly--make that incredibly, outrageously and breathtakingly silly. Maybe that’s why this tale of a trio of inept silent-movie stars turned real-life heroes is such a goofy delight. It’s like a cross between a big-budget Three Stooges movie and a Hope-Crosby road picture, with dozens of old cowpoke gags thrown in to spice up the brew.

Nothing is real in this wacky Western charade--not even the poster-board sunsets. And it’s this giddy artifice that gives “Three Amigos” a delightfully fresh spin. Who would’ve thought that a movie loaded with so many corny jokes and wobbly slapstick routines could be one of the daffiest comedies of the year?

The action takes us back to 1916, when the tiny Mexican village of Santa Poco is being terrorized by a gang of banditos led by El Guapo (Alfonso Arau), a villainous outlaw who looks as if he hasn’t brushed his teeth since the Spanish-American War. When an innocent senorita (Patrice Martinez) sees a silent movie starring the dashing amigos (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short), she is so taken by their heroism that she begs their aid in toppling this cruel tyrant.

By the time the matinee idols get her garbled telegram, they’ve been booted off the Goldsmith Pictures lot for demanding a raise. Suddenly out of work, the bumbling trio are only too happy to head south of the border, thinking they’ve been hired (for 100,000 pesos) to make a quickie personal appearance.

Needless to say, these Hollywood tenderfoots are in for a rude awakening. They hit town, dolled up in their fancy, prop-department “charro” duds, only to find real bullets buzzing by their heads. (You know they’re in trouble when a street urchin asks, “Can I have your watch when you’re dead?”) It’s the comedy of misapprehension, and director John Landis milks the situation for every laugh possible, taking impish delight in showing how ill-prepared these show-biz saviors are for life outside the studio gates.


The amigos see everything as an act. Even when the bad guys start shooting, the three find time to dissect the villains’ performance before the smoke clears. Soothing a clump of Mexican children, Short--who plays a former child star named Ned Nederlander--regales them with Dorothy Gish anecdotes. Landis even stages a deliciously loony campfire scene, where the amigos croon a Randy Newman sagebrush ballad (“Blue Shadows on the Trail”), aided by a back-up chorus of desert critters, including a scene-stealing tortoise.

It’s a testimony to the sad state of Hollywood these days that this is one of the few comedies in recent memory which has actually benefited from the presence of bona-fide stars. While Martin, Newman and “Saturday Night Live’s” Lorne Michaels have supplied a serviceable script, the real joy here is the amigo trio’s well-oiled comic timing. Their trademark “Amigo” salute--which plays like a mixture of an elaborate soul-shake and a Carmen Miranda dance step--is one of those inspired pieces of nonsense that gets funnier each time they do it.

Short is a disappointment, offering little more than childlike tomfoolery. But Chase, even if he’s a bit chunky in his bolero jacket, is loaded with charm, more mischievous and endearing than he’s been on screen in years. Best of all, Martin emerges as a screwball comic wizard, whether he’s slyly imitating the swaggering stride of a gunslinger or gamely wrestling with dungeon manacles as if they were a clanking maze of Nautilus equipment.

All this nuttiness may drive you crazy--it’s like being forced to watch 90 minutes of David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks.” But Landis is a shrewd comic craftsman who realizes that attitude can be everything, especially when you’re aiming for the ridiculous instead of the sublime. The “Three Amigos” (rated PG for occasional violence) reaches low for its goofy gags. But in Hollywood, sometimes you have to stoop to conquer.

‘THREE AMIGOS’ An Orion Pictures presentation in conjunction with Home Box Office. Producers Lorne Michaels, George Folsey Jr. Director John Landis. Writers Michaels, Steve Martin, Randy Newman. Camera Ronald W. Browne. Editor Malcolm Campbell. Music Elmer Bernstein. Songs Randy Newman. Production design Richard Sawyer. Costume design Deborah Nadoolman. With Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Alfonso Arau, Patrice Martinez, Tony Plana, Joe Mantegna, Fred Asparagus, Jon Lovitz.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

Time: one hour, 43 minutes.