"We're soldiers; but we're American soldiers. We've been kickin' ass for 200 years. We're 10 and 1." -- Pvt. John Winger
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writer: Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, Harold Ramis
Principal cast members:
With Harold Ramis in the writing credits and Bill Murray in the cast, there couldn't possibly have been any mystery to what this 1981 film was going to be. Once again, a group of lovable losers will rise up to save the day and prove themselves to not be such losers after all. And in this case, they got to do it twice!
Stripes really plays out as two separate not-quite-hour-long episodes in the lives of two men who are too old and should be too smart to become private soldiers in the US Army. As the film opens, we get a look at their daily (and somewhat dismal) lives. John Winger, played by Murray, is a glib, wise-cracking photographer who drives a cab because, presumably, he's not much of a photographer. In the opening scenes, he picks up an abusive, condescending matron whose attitude proves to be too much, resulting in Winger abandoning his cab in the middle of a bridge and tossing the keys into the East River.
Returning home, he finds his car being repossessed and arrives with a badly damaged pizza and a ruined dress he picked up for his way-too-hot girlfriend. Having lost his job and ruined her dress (to say nothing of the pizza) Winger's day ends with his girlfriend leaving him.
His best friend and counterpart, Russell Zisky, spends his days attempting to teach English to recently arrived immigrants. By the end of the lesson, he has succeeded in teaching his class assorted profanity and the lyrics to the sixties classic, "Da Doo Ron Ron". Zisky, like Winger, isn't exactly living the dream. As the two sit around Winger's apartment contemplating their futures, an Army recruiting ad appears on the screen prompting Winger to say, "This doesn't look so bad."
Before you get a chance to spend much time puzzling over the implausibility, the two are in a recruiting office, confirming that they are not convicted felons and are not practicing homosexuals (though Zisky does confirm that they are willing to learn). The next thing you know, they're in the Army.
As soldiers, the two present a unique challenge to typical Army mentality. Winger's wisecracking and lack of respect for authority get him into constant trouble with the Platoon Sergeant Hulka, played by Warren Oates. Winger's attempts to defy authority are met by hundreds of push-ups and an off-the-record beating before, in a training mishap that defies probability, Sergeant Hulka is injured by an errant mortar. The platoon, leaderless and about to face their graduation ceremonies unprepared, is forced to spend the night practicing under the leadership of Winger and Zisky.
The next morning, despite being completely disheveled, out of uniform, and incapable of performing properly, they manage to impress the general enough to be placed on his secret project - the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle. Thus ends part one of the film. In part two, the platoon is in Germany for the shakedown of this heavily armed recreational vehicle. When John and Russell take it out for an unauthorized spin, Captain Stillman, played by a flummoxed John Laroquette, takes the platoon out to catch the errant soldiers. However, due to poor navigation on a rainy night, they end up in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Hearing Sergeant Hulka's distress call, the two AWOL privates, along with sexy MPs Stella and Louise, come charging to the rescue.
Murray and Ramis are exactly what you expect. Murray is snarky, glib, irreverent, and too cool for olive drab. Ramis is his sidekick and straight man and a bit of a joker, himself. Honestly, the two of them have done this before and would do it again. Nothing about their performances is surprising, nor is it a letdown. They are exactly what you expect.
Warren Oates is a perfect foil for the two. As the tough-guy platoon sergeant, he is no-nonsense and injects what little believability this movie has. In the grizzled, veteran soldier, we see the only grain of realism in this version of the US Army. Oates is capable of comedy as he demonstrated in '1941'. But here, he is the consummate non-commissioned officer and counters Murray's slacker mentality perfectly.
On the other hand, John Laroquette as Captain Stillman, the platoon's commanding officer, is something of a caricature of an educated but utterly inexperienced office. We first see him in his office using a telescope to spy on a women's shower. The scene offers a minute or two of utterly gratuitous nudity and a bevy of female bodies completely unrealistic on an Army base.
Other members of the platoon are introduced in an early bonding scene in which the group of soldiers are getting to know each other. We meet Ox, played by John Candy, who sees the Army as a way of losing weight on the way to becoming a "lean, mean, fighting machine". John Diehl is introduced as Cruiser, a dim small-town boy who joined the Army to avoid the draft, unaware that there had been no draft for several years at that time. Judge Reinhold, in a very early role, plays Elmo, a hapless stoner who just isn't sure why he is in this platoon. Or in this movie.
Also key to the movie are the MPs, Stella and Louise, played by the perennially perky P.J. Soles and the perennially quirky Sean Young. Stella and Louise are party girls at heart and they are the lust interests for Winger and Zisky. During the movie's rescue-in-Czechoslovakia scenes, they prove themselves to be capable soldiers, as well, despite fighting in tight designer jeans and spike heels.
Stripes makes no attempt at a realistic view of modern military life or global politics. It is a pair of stories in which our lovable losers play everything for laughs, whether it is running an obstacle course or defending themselves from Russian soldiers occupying Czechoslovakia. The movie's only link to any grasp on reality is through the hard-as-nails Sergeant Hulka and you have to give Warren Oates credit for every scintilla of truth director Ivan Reitman squeezes from this farce.
Ironically, Reitman himself was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946, before the Communist takeover. Whether that history had anything to do with the film is unknown. One thing for certain: Reitman learned a lot about the enduring power of Ramis' patented story mechanics and of the chemistry between his two stars. He would leverage this formula to even greater success three years later in Ghostbusters.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 7