Stripes (1981) / Comedy-War
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual humor, some violence, and nudity
Running Time: 106 min. (An extended 126 min. version exists on DVD)
Cast: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, John Candy, John Larroquette, P.J. Soles, Sean Young, John Voldstadt, John Diehl, Conrad Dunn, Judge Reinhold, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, Bill Paxton (cameo)
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, Harold Ramis
Review published June 26, 2005
Many of the creative forces behind the hit comedy Animal House reunited for a similar vehicle for Murray, Stripes. This one was a military face, but the formula would be the same, where a group of uncouth young men would irreverently defy authority from within. It would seem that bored men found great pleasure in seeking to be looked after by men with great authority, as this only made it more fun to rail against it completely. The formula works splendidly here because the US Army isn't exactly known for letting smart-asses and ne'er do wells get the upper hand, and this strictness sows the perfect seeds for Bill Murray (Caddyshack, Quick Change) and crew to make a mockery of it, albeit with kid gloves. The comedy is occasionally hit and miss, but when it hits, it packs a wallop, as many scenes are eminently quotable, and some are generally considered classic American comedy highlights of the post-1970s generation.
Bill Murray plays John Winger, a down-and-out cab driver in NYC -- a grown man who has never owned up to responsibility. His girlfriend dumps him and with the thanklessness of his job, he's just about had it with his current life direction. He needs discipline, and badly, so he and a buddy, Russell (Ramis), decide to sign up with the US Army and see if they can indeed "be all they can be". However, they didn't know they'd have to change overnight, as the domineering drill sergeant Hulka (Oates, The Wild Bunch) is in full command and not willing to put up with a lot of sass from him new recruits. Winger gets his goat at every opportunity, and Hulka is out to make an example out of him. Will Winger be able to survive the military, or better question, will the military survive John Winger?
There's really no question that this is a film that succeeds or fails due to Bill Murray, so your chances of liking the movie as a whole will probably depend on your feelings toward him as an actor and comedian. Personally speaking, I feel Stripes ranks among Murray's funniest comedies, and along with Ghostbusters, another Ivan Reitman (Six Days Seven Nights, Evolution) directed film, it's one I revisit the most often. Murray is in top comedic form here, provided with an ample playground in which he can do his trademark lackadaisical, coyly disrespectful shtick. The rest of the cast plays well off of his energy, with some very funny performances from Harold Ramis, John Candy (The Blues Brothers), and John Larroquette ("Night Court"). However, the biggest laughs are generated when Murray squares off with the hard-nosed Warren Oates, who brilliantly plays to show disappointment, disenchantment, and a general disgust with the sad state of the men that he sees that have no sense of duty, honor, or self-dignity. John Winger represents the worst of this breed.
Stripes is a hilarious military comedy most of the way, finally losing a bit of steam as a late story element is introduced whereby John and Russell steals an "urban assault vehicle" for a romp in the hay with their lady friends, causing their troop to go looking for them. It's not altogether bad after this point, it just lacks the energy and wit of the previous ninety minutes, and the upbeat ending of the film, which celebrates the men as some sort of heroes (they would definitely have been the opposite in the military's eyes) is tacked on for no apparent reason save to have one. But then, that's the kind of comedy Stripes is -- having fun toying with time-honored conventions and seeing how many rules can be broken while still being able to avoid getting into trouble.
-- The extended edition adds 20 minutes that had been cut for the theatrical release. While it does fill in some of the holes of the movie, the scenes push the movie over two hours, and are mostly unnecessary. For the curious only, although fans of P.J. Soles may be interested in the bedroom scene which features an ample amount of topless nudity.
©2005 Vince Leo