WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Frustrated taxi driver John Winger joins the army on a whim, taking bored teacher friend Russell Ziskey along for the ride. The harsh realities of army life bring Winger into conflict with an aggressive drill sergeant; even worse, when assigned to a top-secret European mission, John’s misadventures take him and Russell into the front line of the Cold War.
Three years before Ghostbusters became a worldwide hit, director Ivan Reitman teamed up with Bill Murray and writer/actor Harold Ramis for this military comedy that plays out like a prototypic version of Police Academy. As such, the viewer is presented with the raw recruits hitting the brick wall of authority in the shape of shouty Drill Sgt Hulka (Warren Oates), who is more than prepared to hit them back. Behind Sgt Hulka, John Larroquette plays the voyeuristic, idiotic Captain Stillman, more concerned with watching the ladies than the progress of his troops.
Stripes is an undisciplined film, roughly put together and taking its laughs as they come – mostly from the culture clash between civilian life and the army, crystallised in the enmity between Hulka and smart-alecky John Winger (Murray). At more than twenty-five years distance, a lot of laughs are of surprise at the nature of the jokes, rather than the jokes themselves.
For instance, the film is unapologetically sexist, squeezing in an incredibly high breast count considering it is not a sex comedy per se. A lot of these breasts appear when the brigade, a motley collection of social rejects, escape for a night on the town and head straight for a topless bar. Murray organises a whip round for fellow recruit Ox (a muted John Candy) to take on a ringful of lady mud wrestlers; Ox wins, after a couple of painful-looking rounds, by dint of removing the wrestlers’ bikini tops – a police raid quickly follows. There’s nothing wrong with nudity in an adult film, in fact it’s appropriate given the trainees are likely to be sex-starved; but it’s not clear why boobs, and the women behind them, are supposed to be funny in and of themselves.
Barely better treated are John and Russell’s love interests, Military Policewomen Sean Young and PJ Soles. It’s no surprise that their characters are written to fancy John and Russell from the off, happily abandoning any sense of duty when the boys get themselves in trouble. It’s not Ramis’ fault, but it is hard to imagine Young becoming instantly smitten with someone who is more Hank (Marvin) than hunk.
Or Soles with Murray’s character, for that matter. John is an asshole, but a charming and persuasive one, and it’s Murray’s casual performance that just about carries the film. Although he is glib, mouthy and disobedient throughout, by happy accident everything he does in his army career turns out for the best. When Hulka is inadvertently blown up and Murray has to pull the recruits through the drill to avoid repeating the whole course, it’s inconceivable that he could possibly whip the recruits into shape; however, the drill is probably the comedy highlight of the whole film, making the scenario much easier to accept.
Training complete, the new soldiers are sent to Europe to protect and show off a new Urban Assault Vehicle. Murray ‘borrows’ the vehicle for some hi-jinks, leading to an incident in Czechoslovakia as Stillman gets the whole party lost in an attempt to get it back. With its comedy Russians and inexpensive-looking action sequences where there is much shooting but nobody gets shot, the final third of the film plays out exactly as you might expect and really marks the film as a time capsule. For a start, the ‘assault vehicle,’ a glorified camper van, looks silly and unthreatening; secondly, the whole political situation will be alien to anybody born after the film was released. When the country that causes so much trouble is not only no longer under Soviet Rule but no longer in existence, you know that a good deal of time has passed.
So would I recommend Stripes? As an insight into the sexual-political attitudes of the time, or a peek at the early careers of some big names in comedy, it is of some interest. For well-written comedy that will still make you laugh today, though, I might steer you away from Bill Murray’s earliest films and towards those of Steve Martin.