“Excuse me, stewardess. Is there a movie on this flight?”
Considering it’s become such a major staple of Bill Murray‘s career, it’s crazy to think Stripes began as a prospective Cheech and Chong vehicle. Written by screenwriters Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg based on an idea from director Ivan Reitman, it may have gone in that direction if the studio was willing to give the pot-smoking duo creative control. Hardly keen on relinquishing so much power, they decided instead to pitch Harold Ramis on tweaking things so he and Murray could take the reins. The result is an 80s classic we now know and love of two New York slackers figuring that life was already horrible, why not join the army? Perfect fodder for raunchy shenanigans and memorable one-liners, a Czechoslovakian invasion was merely icing on the cake.
Some of the best moments occur before boot camp is a thought in the characters’ minds because rock bottom must be met. Russell Ziskey (Ramis) isn’t so far gone as he enjoys poorly teaching an English as second language course, but he’s prone to go along with whatever scheme his best bud John Winger (Murray) has up his sleeve. Considering the latter just lost his job, apartment, and girlfriend, the constant barrage of recruitment advertisements all but markets him into signing on the dotted line for exotic travel and extreme workout regimens. While receiving fantastic laughs from the easy set-up provided by Ziskey’s occupation, John introduces some surprises with eccentric cab fares and ample apathy. An iconic Elmer Bernstein ditty later and we’re whisked away to Fort Arnold.
This is where the bulk of the comedy occurs. Judge Reinhold, John Candy, John Larroquette, and John Diehl were all cutting their teeth in Hollywood as horror regular P.J. Soles and a pre-Blade Runner Sean Young joined to supply the leads’ with love interests. And rounding things out was western legend Warren Oates as Sgt. Hulka in one of his last roles before passing away. So Reitman had a menagerie of imbeciles to be stoned (Reinhold’s Elmo), dumb (Diehl’s Cruiser), wild (Candy’s Ox), and crazy (Conrad Dunn‘s Psycho); attractive women to screech things to a halt mid-way through for the requisite 80s sexual interlude (despite Soles and Young’s MPs being drawn as the most competent soldiers of the bunch); and authority figures to admire (Oates) and despise (Larroquette).
The plot is pretty simple as far as these things go with Winger (and Russell in tow) creating havoc only to unwittingly become the hero saving the day that he initially ruined. They are both cause and effect throughout the film, making life in training impossible for everyone and going AWOL to potentially spark World War III before always finding their way back to appear selfless when they’re in fact merely cleaning up their own mess. There are times where a moral tries to sneak in as far as telling John’s immature man-child to grow up, but nothing critical enough to the story to actually deliver a message worth learning. It’s just the usual be “cool,” pretend to care about others, and reap the benefits. Assholes finish first.
While the laughs Stripes incite are timeless, the film hasn’t necessarily aged well in comparison with a Caddyshack or Ghostbusters thanks to the copious amount of nudity. Some of it can be forgiven despite having nothing to do with the story itself—Candy’s mud wrestling match opposite strippers who multiply in number each time he throws one into the ropes uses its bare breasts as the joke—but most cannot. There’s no reason for Roberta Leighton to be shirtless at the start or to have Larroquette lecherously gaze through a telescope at the women’s showers (he’s smarmy enough as it is). Gratuitous is when your leads don’t get naked despite Soles’ Stella and Young’s Louise being the only women to have sex, 80s staple or not.
Beyond that the rest is pretty harmless if not clichéd. Larroquette’s Captain Stillman is the kind of guy you love to hate that the actor made a career out of playing and his unearned ambition is a satisfying if obvious foil to the ragtag platoon’s naïve survival instincts. We know Hulka will ultimately find his heart of gold moment while John and Russell will discover the desire to go into battle when running away was always their main response to trouble. After all, the script isn’t rocket science and the premise hardly an Oscar-worthy concept. The severity of army boot camp is all we need for villainy with Stillman relegated to a periphery role serving mainly as the focal point of idiocy to land the group in danger.
I’ll give the writing team credit for the film’s most memorable prop, however, because the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle reveal is priceless for what it is and calling back to an earlier joke. This one vehicle becomes the reason why Murray and Ramis can mount a rescue party behind enemy lines, simultaneously a utilitarian solution as well as the butt of the joke. It epitomizes the film’s wholesale appeal—a relatively believable premise holding a ton of tricks up its sleeve ready to show that authenticity is meaningless when positioned against humor. The filmmakers take the usual army tropes and find the comedy by creating an atmosphere for the actors to go crazy with improvisation. While definitely a product of its chauvinistic era, its hilarity may never be forgotten.