Walk north, up the Las Vegas Strip – past the herds of tourists on Segways, the stunted Eiffel Tower, the 50ft billboard of Matt Goss’s face – and you’ll encounter a relatively new landmark. Just after Minnie Mouse and the guy in the Homer Simpson costume stands another American icon. Bearded, pot bellied and sporting shades with his trademark satchel, it’s The Hangover’s Alan Garner.
Except it’s not really. It‘s a passable Zach Galifianakis lookalike, mugging for phone cameras and embracing excited tourists, filling his tip jar with eager offerings. “That guy makes $600 an hour,” jokes the real Galifianakis when we quiz him about his doppelgänger. “I’ve actually met him and he’s very nice. Quieter than you’d imagine. Maybe I should go and heckle him. Or at least ask for my cut.”
Fake Alan’s not the only one cashing in on the legacy of Todd Phillips’ billion-dollar franchise. Everywhere you look in this town – key-rings, T-shirts, 'One Man Wolfpack’ beer sleeves – there are abundant reminders of how integral The Hangover is to the modern Las Vegas myth.
Bradley Cooper even confides that his mum dragged him over to one of the slot machines with his face on it (“She literally stopped us having lunch to go see it. It was very embarrassing.”) Let’s put it this way, there’s no one standing on the street dressed as Danny Ocean or that guy with the dreadful British accent that Don Cheadle played.
In the wake of The Hangover: Part II’s commercially successful, but tonally predictable, Thai excursion (more on that later), there were swirling rumours about the threequel pitching up in Amsterdam. But after a day in the unseasonable Nevada sun with the film’s makers and stars, it’s clear that the saga – if that’s not too highfalutin’ a term for a comedy laden with escaped tigers, exposed balls and Phil Collins-loving former boxers – had to end here. Galifianakis, again, puts it best. “[The Hangover] is definitely in the fabric of this city,” he deadpans. “You can really feel it when you’re walking around while drunks yell at you.”
As we arrive at midnight for a full day’s filming in an unassuming downtown side street, one bonus of making a high-profile motion picture in Vegas becomes clear. Despite twitchiness from the film company about revealing plot details (we’re asked not to pack personal recording devices), the only concession to security is a few cones and a burly guard in a hi-vis vest.
Anyone wandering by could see today’s set-up – a climactic scene where a bruised Galifianakis (Alan), Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu) and Justin Bartha (poor, perpetually sidelined Doug) trade a battered limo for an even more battered people-carrier outside a pawn shop. But no one – even the open-top tour bus that rumbles past – is that bothered. It turns out Sin City’s plentiful other distractions are working in the production team’s favour.
“I’ve got to say, if you ever want to make a movie, make it in Vegas, because people don’t care here,” chuckles Cooper during a short break between takes. “We were filming in Arizona, on the border of Mexico, and the amount of people there watching was crazy.”
Director Todd Phillips, slouching over in cargo shorts and oversized headphones for a chat, agrees. “Compared to New York or even Bangkok, it’s kind of easy to fly under the radar,” he says. Plus, he’s noticed a changed atmosphere in the town. “[They’ve treated] The Hangover III differently to The Hangover. They roll out the red carpet in Vegas now.”
That doesn’t just extend to branded slot machines and, as Helms ruefully puts it to us, “being tackled by drunk assholes in the Caesars Palace lobby”. They controlled the fountains at the Bellagio, parachuted a stuntman on to the Strip and even had people abseiling down the side of Caesars Palace – all in the name of amping up the franchise’s action credentials and popcorn-spluttering twists.
Pretty much everyone on set today, as morning bleeds into afternoon and Bradley Cooper spins the limo around for an umpteenth take, tells us the same thing: plot predictability is the enemy. This blockbusting series is all about the shock of the new. Which brings us neatly to the elephant – or rather, chain-smoking monkey – in the room. The perceived failings of £375m box-office phenomenon The Hangover: Part II.
HIT THE ROAD
Phillips, who swears he writes on a computer without internet access so he can’t read reviews, won’t brook the charges of predictability aimed at the second picture – a film The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw referred to as a “shot-for-shot remake” of the first. And Cooper insists that the similarities to the first instalment were “a conscious choice”. But Galifianakis is willing to concede that some of the detractors were on to something.
“Drama seems to get away with it. Nobody’s like, ‘I can’t believe they gave Indiana Jones a whip in the second film!’ ‘James Bond is drinking a martini again?’,” says Galifianakis much (much) later over coffee in a striplit portakabin. “With comedy, jokes have to be surprising, so the critics had a legitimate point. I think we wanted to make it a little fresher for the third one, go a different way. That formula is no longer there.”
(Picture left: ShortList's Jimi on The Hangover III's Las Vegas set)
This means, as advance publicity has mysteriously intoned, there’s no wedding, no bachelor party and (paradoxically enough) no hangover. As Justin Bartha notes, invoking what we’ll call ‘The Home Alone Rule’, “I think if it happened again, people might roll their eyes at these drunk idiots. I don’t know if they’d go on the ride again.”
So what can we expect? Well, the film opens with Chow, Ken Jeong’s effete crimelord, breaking out of prison in Bangkok. Then we catch up with the Wolfpack as, for reasons hinted at in the trailer, they prepare to ship Alan to a rehab facility. Cue a botched road trip, a stop in Tijuana, an encounter with John Goodman’s bad guy (Galifianakis: “A great actor who giggles like a school child”), Doug going missing (again), more entanglement with Chow, a bout of cock-fighting and the high-stakes Sin City finale we’ve seen part of today.
Oh, and there’s the bit where Alan accidentally decapitates a giraffe on the freeway. The latest addition to The Hangover‘s proud tradition of exotic animal abuse.
“It’s just completely f*cked up in the best way,” notes Helms. “But I want to be clear that it was not a real giraffe. I’m generally opposed to the beheading of real giraffes. But CGI ones? Those guys are assholes.”
END OF THE LINE
It makes you wonder if, despite protestations that this film definitely ends the trilogy, there’ll be more additions to The Hangover’s messed-up menagerie. When the box-office receipts inevitably start piling up, will they really be able to resist going for a fourth outing?
“I can’t even imagine it,” says Helms. “There’s such a commitment to really blowing it out with this last one, and it has the overwhelming feeling of an ending.” Phillips goes even further, dangling the possibility that not everyone will make it out alive. “This doesn’t mean that [the main cast] all die at the end,” he says, with a sly smile. “But it’s not just another chapter. It’s very much an ending. It’s kind of all about Alan – as the last flawed one in the group – becoming complete.”
Back on set, as newly illuminated neon signs reflect on the wet asphalt, that spiritual contentment extends to Alan finding a stash of porn mags and prescription drugs in the car Chow stole. It’s now about 8pm and the scene outside the authentically seedy fake pawn shop (taxidermy, dubiously acquired old TVs, a sign that says ‘beware of the owner‘) has been changed slightly. It may be later in the day but it’s earlier in the film, with the Wolfpack once more desperately trying to find Doug.
Bartha is no longer here and Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms discuss another take in a huddle with Phillips. The director wants Alan to be a little more frantic as they ransack the car for something valuable. Galifianakis has got it. Cooper walks back to the limo while Galifianakis and Helms skip back holding hands, embracing the tired delirium that comes with this sort of long working day.
ShortList overhears them in the car, discussing plans for a late sushi dinner as Helms reads a smutty nearby storefront in a corny radio announcer’s voice (“We got girl-girl, we got boy-girl...”), and it hits you that they’ve seemingly managed to return to what made that comparatively low-budget first film such a hit. “I think ultimately the [films were successful] because of the chemistry between these three guys,” noted Phillips earlier. “Because it really feels like a genuine friendship.”
There should be bubbling resentment and bumping egos between these three A-listers by now, but instead they’re just old mates dicking around in a limo in Las Vegas. It’s the relatable formula that launched it all. No one can predict what the response to this final chapter will be, but you’d comfortably wager that a certain street corner lookalike won‘t be deserting his post any time soon.
The Hangover Part III is at cinemas nationwide from 23 May