Five minutes into “The Hangover Part III,” a giraffe is gruesomely decapitated by a freeway overpass. While this unfortunate event is ultimately tangential to the film’s plot, it nonetheless marks its best shot at leaving a lasting legacy, with the phrase “beheading the giraffe” perhaps someday supplanting “jumping the shark” as the cliche of choice to mark a franchise’s official descent into pitiable pointlessness. Nearly bereft of laughs, this final “Hangover” should nonetheless generate lucrative business due to simple brand recognition and a desire to see the old gang one last time as they dutifully, distractedly wind down the clock.

Once the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever made, the first “Hangover” was one of the best surprises of 2009; a thoroughly modern callback to the great politically incorrect bro comedies of the 1980s, enlivened with a novel narrative twist. A 2011 sequel reeked of laziness, reprising the original’s every beat with mechanical obligation, yet it still managed to squeeze out some quality gags. “Part III,” however, takes the opposite path to even worse results. Ditching the hangovers, the backward structure, the fleshed-out characters and any sense of debauchery or fun, this installment instead just thrusts its long-suffering protagonists into a rote chase narrative, periodically pausing to trot out fan favorites for a curtain call.

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At times it’s debatable whether “The Hangover Part III” should even be considered a comedy at all, as it more often plays like a loopily plotted, exposition-heavy actioner. Despite a career-long devotion to low-brow comedy, director Todd Phillips displays a deft touch for the various jail breaks, heists and car chase sequences that arise here, while the film’s attempts at basic comic banter wither on the vine. One wonders how he would fare directing a straight genre project in which he could use dark humor to spice up the action beats, rather than the other way around.

But as for the film at hand, it focuses on goonish outcast Alan (Zach Galifianakis), then kicks into gear as he accidentally jumps the … or rather, beheads a giraffe and sparks a subsequent highway pileup, the aftermath of which causes the death of a minor character. One of the more subtle subversions of the whole “Hangover” trilogy is its notion that any real-life person who embodied the old “wild and crazy guy” comic archetype would actually be a terrifying psychopath, and that theme reaches its logical conclusion here, as the assembled returning characters stage an intervention. Wolfpackers Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) convince Alan to check into a psychiatric treatment facility in Arizona by promising to drive him there themselves.

No sooner have they reached the desert than they’re run off the road by a gang of pig-masked thugs commanded by crime boss Marshall (John Goodman). For reasons too confusing and irrelevant to relate, the Wolfpack’s first Las Vegas bacchanal four years ago somehow allowed the effeminate Chinese gangster Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) to steal a truckload of Marshall’s gold bricks. Taking Doug hostage, Marshall gives the remaining trio three days to find both Chow (sprung from a Thai prison in the pic’s prologue) and the purloined gold, entailing a journey to Tijuana and then back to Vegas.

That the plot is convoluted and ridiculous isn’t really a problem, but by playing things completely chronologically — and worse, soberly — this film’s shenanigans feel witlessly arbitrary in a way that the previous installments avoided. Another key failing is the film’s centerstage placement of characters who work best on the fringes, like Alan and (especially) Chow. As unhinged as they were, both earlier “Hangover” films managed to keep the focus on Cooper and Helms, whose characters bore at least passing resemblance to actual adults, while Galifianakis and Jeong brought in desultory rushes of cartoonish anarchy. Reverse those proportions, however, and the proceedings become unpalatably frenzied, akin to being served a full plate of wasabi with a sushi garnish.

Having recently proved he can tackle roles of far greater sophistication, Cooper seems the most disengaged among the cast, and several of his disdainfully delivered lines can’t help but feel like meta-commentary on the whole affair — “who gives a fuck?” and “what the fuck are we watching?” in particular. Goodman brings surprisingly little to his heavy role, although fellow newcomer Melissa McCarthy, playing a deliciously vile Vegas pawn-shop owner, steals the one scene here that could be spliced into the original film without a loss in quality.

Tech credits are topnotch throughout, with special plaudits going to lenser Lawrence Sher and second-unit d.p. Josh Bleibtreu for crafting some genuinely elegant compositions where lesser work probably would have sufficed. Elaborate old-school aerial stunt work shot over Las Vegas Boulevard and on a (convincing) replica of the Caesars Palace facade leaves a strong impression.

The Hangover Part III’ Photos:

Film Review: ‘The Hangover Part III’

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, May 15, 2013. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation in association with Legendary Pictures of a Green Hat Films production. Produced by Todd Phillips, Dan Goldberg. Executive producers, Thomas Tull, Scott Budnick, Chris Bender, J.C. Spink.
  • Crew: Directed by Todd Phillips. Screenplay, Phillips, Craig Mazin, based on characters created by Jon Lucas, Scott Moore.  Camera (color, Technicolor prints), Lawrence Sher; editor, Debra Neil-Fisher; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisors, Randall Poster, George Drakoulias; production designer, Maher Ahmad; costume designer, Loiuse Mingenbach; art director, Austin Gorg; set decorator, Gene Serdena; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat/SDDS), Whit Norris; sound designer/supervisor, Cameron Frankley; re-recording mixers, Kevin O’Connell, Gregg Landaker; visual effects supervisor, Robert Stadd; visual effects, Hammerhead Prods., Hydraulx, Talking Bird Pictures, VFX Collective; second-unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu; assistant director, Jeffrey Wetzel; casting director, Mindy Marin.
  • With: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy, Jeffrey Tambor, Heather Graham, Mike Epps, Sasha Barrese, Jamie Chung, Sondra Currie, Gillian Vigman, Silvia Curiel, Grant Holmquist.