It begins with a bloody decapitation, continues with a man grinning through his father's funeral, then proceeds to fill car trunks and swimming pools with lifeless bodies. It's "The Hangover Part III," billed as the end of a trilogy that began with 2009's rollicking comedy "The Hangover," and it seems to have one goal: to be so dark, nasty and joyless that audiences won't want Part IV.
Remember the freewheeling Wolfpack, with Bradley Cooper as cowboy-cool Phil, Ed Helms as nerdy dentist Stu and Zach Galifianakis as the addled manchild Alan? They're here, but it's as if all the substances they've ingested over the years have curdled in their systems, making them tired and cranky. Alan has lost his pure-hearted nature and has become a sociopath. He sets the movie's creepy tone early by playing Billy Joel's "My Life" while his father (Jeffrey Tambor) dies of a heart attack.
Alan's deepening psychosis brings the Wolfpack back together to stage an intervention, though it's interrupted by crime boss Marshall (an ice-cold John Goodman), who wants them to track down their old frenemy, Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). It seems Chow stole some gold, and Marshall is holding Alan's brother-in-law, Doug (Justin Bartha), until he gets it.
What follows is a queasy combination of black comedy and bleak crime-thriller. Chow, once such a wildly flamboyant presence, is now a jittery, sweaty criminal who mostly murders animals. There's precious little slapstick in the violence, and all the jokes feel strangely hostile. Melissa McCarthy plays a pawnshop owner who bonds with Alan because they both hate their mothers (hers is disabled).
Returning director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote with Craig Mazin ("The Hangover Part II"), wipes the smiles from his audience's faces so thoroughly that his perversity is almost admirable. Rarely has such a beloved comedy franchise been so coldly put to death. The closest equivalent might be when cartoonist Robert Crumb killed Fritz the Cat with an icepick to the head.
As if to hammer home the emptiness, "The Hangover Part III" ends without the familiar montage of wild-and-crazy Polaroids. The closing credits are accompanied by Phil Collins' rock dirge "In the Air Tonight."
PLOT Haunted by past misdeeds, the Wolfpack must return to Las Vegas.
RATING R (for pervasive language including sexual references, some violence and drug content and brief graphic nudity)
BOTTOM LINE The comedy franchise nails shut its coffin with this dark, violent, sour-humored kiss-off