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Review: Stripes (1981)

Stripes (1981)

Directed by: Ivan Reitman

Premise: A pair of slackers (Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) enlists in the United States army.

What Works: When Stripes went into production, none of the lead players were bona fide movie stars yet. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had scored a hit with Caddyshack and Ivan Reitman had successfully directed Meatballs but otherwise the talent involved in Stripes was pretty green. Nevertheless, Stripes remains one of the best titles in the filmographies of everyone involved. The picture shows significant inspiration from the 1970 motion picture MASH but Stripes is a better movie than Robert Altman’s film and the 1981 picture has been enormously influential; every military comedy that has come since is inevitably compared to Stripes and they often borrow gags, character types, and sequences. Even military movies that aren’t comedies have echoed Stripes, namely Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. The key to Stripes is found in its two lead actors: Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Murray is in top form here and the actor showcases his ability to inject comic energy into every scene. One of Murray’s outstanding qualities is his knack for making unlikable characters irresistible. His character in Stripes, and for that matter Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and What About Bob?, are despicable people but Murray is able to make us love him in all of his obnoxious glory. That’s partly due to Murray’s charm but it is also due to his vulnerability and Stripes allows Murray’s character a few real moments that go a long way to humanizing him. Murray’s foil in Stripes, as in other pictures, is Harold Ramis. In addition to acting, Ramis is also credited as a writer on Stripes and although it is known that there was a lot of improvisation on the set, the contributions of Ramis and the other writers should not be minimized. Stripes is one of several films which demonstrates that Ramis clearly understood how to utilize Bill Murray and although he is often playing the straight man it’s Ramis’ interplay with Murray that unleashes the comic potential. Ramis’ influence is also felt in the good nature of this film. Some of the pictures that he and others were involved with in the late 1970s and early 80s—namely Animal House—have an ugly meanness about them but Stripes (and Ramis’ later films such as Groundhog Day) demonstrates a much more humane demeanor behind the camera. The rest of the cast of Stripes contribute a lot to this film and the picture includes early performances by John Candy, Judge Reinhold, and John Larroquette. For that reason, Stripes is one of the essential movies of the 1980s. The picture features a collection of many of the great comedy talents from that time and each actor plays to his strengths.

What Doesn’t: Anyone with any understanding of the military can figure out that Stripes has little or nothing to do with the realities of the armed forces or warfare. This may be a sticking point with viewers who demand absolute realism, or who can’t get around the goofy quality of the movie, or who just don’t have a sense of humor, especially with regard to the the military. But while Stripes plays fast and loose with reality, so did MASH (the motion picture and the television show), Duck Soup, To Be or Not To Be, Top Gun, and Inglorious Basterds. Stripes is in many ways a live action cartoon—it’s Animal House with guns and uniforms—and it works within its own framework. That said, there are flaws to this film. Stripes has a great cast but some of the supporting players are underutilized, especially Conrad Dunn and Judge Reinhold. There are also some big leaps in the plotting, especially when the setting transitions to Eastern Europe. Stripes is a product of its time and like a lot of 1980s comedies there is a chauvinistic streak running through the picture. That is most apparent in the infamous mudwrestling scene and there are a few offhand sexual assault jokes that aren’t going to play with a contemporary audience. But on the other hand, the filmmakers deserve some credit for making the female leads, played by P.J. Soles and Sean Young, much smarter than similar characters in other movies of this time.

DVD extras: There are two versions of Stripes: the original 106 minute theatrical cut and the 126 minute extended version. The material added into the longer cut integrates almost seamlessly but much of this material is filler, especially a lengthy sequence in which Murray and Ramis’ characters abscond from the base, and the filmmakers were right to delete it the first time. The blu-ray edition includes both versions of the film as well as a commentary track, featurettes, and trailers. 

Bottom Line: Stripes remains one of the essential military comedies and it’s one of the best titles on the filmographies of Bill Murray, Ivan Reitman, John Candy, and Harold Ramis. The film has its flaws but like a lot of movies of its time those imperfections are a part of its charm.

Episode: #480 (March 2, 2014)