Directed by Ivan Reitman
Two friends who are dissatisfied with their jobs decide to join the army for a bit of fun.
Believe it or not, but Military Comedy is actually a film genre. There are a number of films out there that take a humorous look at a tour of duty, and all of them owe a fair amount to Stripes. Sure MASH came out 11 years before it, but it was Stripes that took the comedic hero's journey formula to the military. If it werenít for Stripes then we probably wouldn't have gotten one of Pauly Shore's greatest films, In the Army Now.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, and written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, the film was the second time that Reitman, Ramis, and Murray would collaborate, the first being Meatballs. The film was initially supposed to star Cheech and Chong. The idea of the famous stoner duo was pitched to a studio and greenlit that very day. The actors wanted too much control and instead the characters were re-written to be suited for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.
Bill Murray is John Winger, a slacker that even Seth Rogen could learn from. As the film opens, Winger quits his job as a cab driver, has his car repossessed, his model girlfriend dumps him, and his pizza is dropped face up on the street. His best friend Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) joins him in some self-loathing before a recruitment ad for the U.S. Army plays on television. Winger decides itís exactly what he needs to get in shape and get him a new woman. Winger and Ziskey flee to the nearest recruitment office and hop on a bus destined for basic training.
Some of the fellow recruits include Elmo played by Judge Reinhold (as a stoner no less), and Ox, played by a jolly John Candy. Their whole platoon is made up of misfits, but it's Winger who makes enemies with their drill sergeant, Sergeant Hulka, played by Warren Oates. Their conflicts lead to a heavy scene in the middle of the film that allows Murray to try his hand in drama.
The sloppy platoon eventually makes it to the end of basic training. On their first leave they go to a topless mud-wrestling bar. Police raid the club, but Winger and Ziskey donít get arrested. Instead they are rescued by Stella and Louise, two female MP soldiers the men had met earlier in the film. Love blossoms and both men get their women. The platoon passes graduation with unorthodox flying colors, so much so that they're sent to Italy for a top secret mission that involves guarding the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle disguised as a 70's GMC motor home.
Winger and Ziskey end up taking the EM-50 for a ride to pick up their new MP girlfriends. Captain Stillman, played by John Larroquette is the man who was in charge of the mission, so when he finds the vehicle missing he leads the rest of the platoon to Czechoslovakia where he believes itís being held. The platoon is captured which leaves Winger, Ziskey and their girlfriends tasked with rescuing them.
The last third of the film focuses on the rescue of the prisoned platoon and features lots of explosions, gunfire, and action. Reitman doesn't blend the comedy with the action well, and we're left with Bill Murray running around with an Uzi, and Harold Ramis firing missiles at buildings from a vehicle. In Ghostbusters, the next film Reitman would direct, he found the perfect balance between comedy, action, and thrills, often combining all three together seamlessly. In Stripes it's apparent he didn't have the combination down yet and it feels more like practice for Ghostbusters, leaving the viewer with a climax in the form of a bad fireworks show.
The film is still a fun time, especially the first two thirds. Murray and Ramis obviously have an off-screen chemistry that transfers over into the film, with most scenes feeling seemingly like improvisation (a Murray special). The funniest scenes in the film are just of the two interacting with one another. I wish they had stuck with the characters a little longer before shipping them off to boot camp. When they do get to boot camp it's John Candy's Ox who becomes the platoon's funniest member. You can't watch him in a mud filled wrestling ring, tossing around multiple topless women and not have a smile on your face. Speaking of topless women, the film has plenty of them. Raunchy as hell, and with no apologies, the film throws around gratuitous nudity often, and the results are juvenile and fun.
Topless women aside, the film is Murray's. No one has ever made slackers as lovable and charming as Murray, and in this film he's in his prime. He celebrates recklessness and slobbery unlike anyone else can. His deadpan expressions and dialogue keep you constantly giggling and entertained. It is the Bill Murray show and there are few actors that can carry a film in this manner. So it's when a gun is put into his hands that some of the charm is lost. Bill Murray's greatest weapon is just that, Billy Murray, not a piece of metal that fires bullets. The film is a fun military comedy, but doesn't measure up to the future films these men would work on together.