I am a big fan of both Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and especially of the movies they did together, so it should come as no surprise that I picked “Stripes” as one of my off-List movies for 1981.
John (Bill Murray) and Russell (Harold Ramis) live a hand to mouth life in New York. John’s cynical, nihilistic and somewhat childish slacker attitude takes him nowhere and on a particularly shitty day he losses his job, his car, his girlfriend and his apartment. Somehow, he manages to talk his friend, Russell, into joining the army as a sort of last resort. Never has the US Army received more unlikely and unsuited recruits.
John runs his Bill Murray schtick throughout, which lands him at odds with everybody, especially his drill sergeant, Hulka, (Warren Oates). He has this way of talking to people where you always have a feeling he is mocking and not entirely sincere. Something which is both infuriating and hilariously funny. Needless to say, the basic training is a total disaster, something not helped by the “quality” of the rest of the unit, which includes Ox (John Candy) and Elmo (Judge Reinhold), both in their American screen debut, or the total incompetence of company commander, Captain Stillman (John Larroquette). The latter ends up sending Sergeant Hulka to the hospital when he blows him up, and it is now up to John to take charge of the unit so they can make it through graduation.
“Stripes” is sort of a combination of “Animal House” and “Private Benjamin”. It is the slacker anarchy and improvised hilarity merged into a story of unlikely and unfit recruits in the army. What happens when chaos meets discipline, when comedy meets deadly seriousness? This is not a new combo at all. In Denmark that combo dates back to the early sixties and also American cinema had been there before. It has just never been as funny as it is here. The key here is the force of nature which is Bill Murray and the writing and sense of the improvisation opportunities of Harold Ramis. Not to forget Ivan Reitman going along with it.
Bill Murray is one of the few actors who can make an entire movie be about himself and actually lift it. Any movie will completely change character the moment he shows up, for better or worse and from then on, it is a Bill Murray movie. This might not work for everybody, but for me his slacker cynicism is gold. He is the master of deadpan.
The story of “Stripes” is not great. There is a background phase, boot camp phase and then they are out on a mission. It is a story anyone with half a brain can follow. It is not a very naturalistic one either. There are lots of moments that require suspense of disbelief to the point of the ridiculous and had this been anything else than a Murray/Ramis/Reitman movie, it would have tanked. It is that thin. But by making it a vehicle it is all down to Murray and Ramis and in that context the silliness works. More for me back in the eighties and ninetieth, but I still had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and I was able to gloss over some of the more stupid elements, such as the incursion into Czeck territory.
The early eighties was a very fertile period for this type of comedy and, silly as they are, I love them. Whether it was “Police Academy”, “Beverly Hills Cop” or “Trading Places” I always have had a good time watching them. A guilty pleasure, if you will. “Stripes” is almost archetypical in that respect, taking silliness and anarchy far but stopping just short of becoming stupid and creating in the process unforgettable comedy.
When Murray and Ramis fell out after “Groundhog Day” it deprived us of the potential for so much great comedy. What a miss. Then again, Murray seems to have been falling out with everybody in Hollywood, so it is a wonder how many great movies he has actually been in throughout the years.
“Stripes” is a Murray and Ramis classic. We still have the best to come, but this one is not bad. Recommended as a classic.