Well, they did say this one was going to be different.
After The Hangover II essentially duplicated the structure of the first movie --three guys piecing together a night of debauchery and mayhem none of them can entirely remember — director Todd Phillips promised that the third would go in a new direction. And, in a bold if unbelievable move in the era of never-ending sequels, he pledged that this Hangover would be the last.
A kind of encouraging predictive logic indicated that a third movie might embrace the franchise's better instincts: While its predecessors suffered from a sensibility mired in casual sexism and homophobia, the first also had an inventive conceit, a handful of talented comedians in memorable supporting roles and a Zach Galifianakis performance bubbling with unpredictable weirdness. With Phillips given the freedom to conclude this story of debauchery and blackouts on his own terms, you might hope for a mixed bag swinging toward decency.
Instead, there's Hangover III, an excessively violent action comedy that handily manages the tough task of feeling at once tired and aggressively heartless. You can almost see its underdeveloped soul shriveling away as the movie kills off any sense of fun the franchise used to have: Where The Hangover found its representative image in Galifianakis and that misplaced baby decked out in matching sunglasses, this movie offers ... a decapitated giraffe head.
Out is the formula, with no hangover and few comedic set pieces; in is much more nonsense involving Wolfpack nemesis Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), a surprisingly high body count that's mostly mammalian, and a dark tonal shift that begins when the movie turns on the mostly benign oddball Alan (Galifianakis).
Alan's antics have occasionally walked the line between harmlessly mad-hatter and unintentionally destructive — his earnest desire that the guys have a good time together is what got them dosed with roofies in one movie and a muscle relaxants/ADHD meds cocktail in the other. But now his actions have consequences, and what The Hangover once asked its audience to read as eccentricity is now viewed as signs of a serious mental problem.
Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Doug (Justin Bartha) stage an intervention in a scene that both tries to sell Alan's behavior as clinically unstable and still trading on it for jokes; it's a mixed-message perspective that's all the cheaper because up till now, the character's behavior has played a lot more like a loose mix of written and ad-libbed quirks carried by Galifianakis' talent than like any diagnosable disorder.
Aaaaaanyway: On their way to a treatment center, the guys are run off the road and held at gunpoint by a group of thugs. An overdose of exposition reveals a menacing John Goodman as Marshall, a mobster connected to a minor event in the first movie and now out for revenge on Chow, who's recently escaped from a Thai prison. Marshall takes Doug hostage, making him the MacGuffin once again — something the movie refuses to wink at. Only instead of being merely missing, he'll be dead in a few days unless the others find and deliver Chow.
This threat of violence sets up the movie's sensibility, fueled mostly by funny one-liners from Galifianakis tempered by the straight-up murders of chickens, dogs and even people. A franchise that began with successful gags involving guys getting tazed or punched in the face by Mike Tyson now offers up various unstylized, unfunny and objectively horrible things as the Wolfpack's remnants track Chow to Tijuana and thence to Vegas. Stu and Phil — blandly written wastes of Helms and Cooper's talents, who've never had much to do — are further reduced to reacting naturalistically to the grim things happening around them. They're just a couple of guys having a really bad couple of days.
It's the malevolent Chow of Hangover II whose presence and worldview dominate this movie; he's identified as a cancer more than once, but his particular brand of evil is unspecific. He's a broad caricature even less defined than Alan: psychopathic, sex-obsessed, drug-obsessed, death-obsessed, colorblind, dyslexic and fond of karaoke — he's whatever the plot needs him to be, really, and whatever kind of insane Ken Jeong's mad-libs make him. The lack of a true characterization wasn't a problem when he occupied a minor spot in the first film, but elevated to driving story force, he becomes an unmotivated creator of chaos, and one too exposed for much of his nonsense to be funny.
There's something or other at the end about Alan's eventual growing up, a process helped along by his meeting a foil in a pawn-shop owner played by Melissa McCarthy. But the winning moments between them are too few, and in the end there's little joy to be gained from any of what happens in this third dull ache of a Hangover; in dumping his formula, Phillips throws out just about everything else that made the first movie even a little likable.
There's even a suggestion here that the group's cycle of lost nights and poor choices will repeat, with Chow in their lives forever. If that happens, let's hope they don't remember it — and we don't have to see it.