“We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more lovable than the mutt.”
Comedies have changed drastically over time and some of the humor that used to work in the past doesn’t anymore, but there is something nostalgic about revisiting that unique style. During the early 80’s there were a number of films centering around military cadet training such as Private Benjamin, Taps, Stripes, An Officer and a Gentleman, and so on. These irreverent comedies weren’t afraid of being politically incorrect, so some of the jokes might feel offensive and incredibly sexist in today’s world (which was the case in Stripes). Coming off fresh from his success in Meatballs, director Ivan Reitman decided to team up once again with Bill Murray for this military comedy. At the time, Murray was mostly known for his work in Saturday Night Live and the National Lampoon Radio Hour. He had gained some recognition for his roles in Meatballs and Caddyshack, but he was just getting warmed up with what would soon be his big break: Ghostbusters. Murray convinced Reitman to hire Harold Ramis to play his sidekick in Stripes, and despite having collaborated in writing the scripts for Animal House and Caddyshack, he had no prior experience as an actor. Reitman gave him the opportunity in Stripes and it marked the beginning of a successful collaboration between the three. And that is why I think Stripes is an important film because it helped pave the path for what was to come. It doesn’t hurt that Bill Murray is the star of this film because he is an actor who always elevates the material he’s in with his charisma and charm. He also shares great chemistry with Harold Ramis, who also proves to have a great sense of comedic timing. A lot of their dialogue was improvised and it helped the two were good friends before filming this. Include a funny supporting performance from John Candy and you have yourself a decent comedy with some hilarious and memorable scenes.
The film introduces us to John Winger (Bill Murray) a struggling photographer who is working as a taxi driver. When a passenger begins getting on his nerves, he decides he’s not going to take it anymore. He stops the cab in the middle of a bridge and throws the keys out to the river. Things don’t get better when he arrives home and discovers his girlfriend is walking out on him for being a slacker and not going anywhere in life. John isn’t sure what to do with his life, so he convinces his best friend, Russell (Harold Ramis) to join the Army with him. They don’t do it out of a sense of patriotism or anything, but because they know men in uniform are attractive and they also want to get in shape. Once they enlist, their training begins under the sturdy hand of Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates). John doesn’t take this army thing seriously and that gets him and the troop in trouble most of the time. What he does find is romance, as he and Russell begin escorting two female MPs, Stella (P.J. Soles) and Louise (Sean Young), which makes the experience all that more fun for them, but this eventually will lead the platoon inadvertently into enemy territory.
Bill Murray proves he’s always been an expert at playing these wisecracking cocky characters and he does it in a very charming way so it’s easy to sympathize with him. The film does seem a bit unbalanced however with a final climactic act that seems taken out of another movie, but I still enjoyed its dumb humor. Stripes isn’t as popular as some of Murray’s later work, but it’s interesting to see his beginnings and realize he always had his charm. Stripes is an irreverent comedy, but it is unique in that it is quite restrained for what it is trying to say and do, and that is because of the way Murray and Ramis downplayed their characters. Stripes might not be one of Reitman’s best films but it is still an enjoyable watch.