Year One left such a bad taste in my mouth that when I got back to my apartment I gathered what few Ramis DVDs I had and popped them in the ol' player to have a sort of unofficial wake. Most of my stuff was at my house and not college, but I at least had Stripes and the Ghostbusters films, so I made do. Before now, I'd only seen Stripes once (well, technically twice, as I watched both versions), so I figured not only might I fight back the memory of Ramis' latest dud but I might also spot some new stuff.
I watched the original theatrical version of Stripes, and thank God I did, because even this truncated edition is overlong and unfocused. Don't get me wrong: Stripes is an excellent comedy and the first film that allowed Bill Murray to really start honing that dryly cynical character that would become his staple. It just needed a better editor.
Murray plays John Winger, a taxi driver who gets a pink slip after terrorizing a rude upper-class woman by mishandling her bags and driving like a madman. Before the day is over, his car is repossessed and his girlfriend dump him. His friend, Russell Ziskey (Ramis), isn't doing much better: he tries to teach ESL classes but doesn't know the first thing about teaching immigrants. Winger decides he needs to turn his life around, but he can't do it without help, so he convinces Ziskey to enlist in the Army with him.
What follows is, in its own devilish way, the comedic version of Full Metal Jacket, made a good six years before that film. Winger and Ziskey head off to basic training where they meet a cast of characters played by such scene-stealers as John Candy and Judge Reinhold. Sgt. 1st Class Hulka (Warren Oates) does all the usual spirit-breaking and head-shaving, but where Pvt. Joker in Kubrick's opus quickly fell into line, Winger proves a deadpan thorn in the sergeant's side.
Murray owns these boot camp scenes; he sports an innocent but conniving smirk as he gently yet incessantly challenges the sergeant's command. Backed by Ramis' writing, his Winger gets laughs for the simple fact that he manages to remain just one step ahead of the authorities in a vocation that doesn't allow for much slacking, to say the least. There's an uneasy admiration between the two warring factions, as Winger at last has a worthy foe and can take any punishment the sarge can dish out.
Ramis, Candy, John Laroquette and the others are no slouches themselves; Candy is his usual affable dope, while Laroquette plays the officious prig with relish (clearly serving as a military transplant of Niedermeyer from Animal House). Ramis plays a marvelous straight man to Murray's Winger, looking ever exhausted by his friend's antics even as he continuously acts as an enabler just to see what his bud will do next.
As with Full Metal Jacket, the film takes an abrupt turn when the soldiers leave basic and receive their first missions. Where Full Metal Jacket suddenly switched from dark comedy to its thematic arc, however, Stripes goes from broad comedy to, well, I'm not quite sure. The men are transferred to Europe where they are placed in charge of the "Urban Assault Vehicle," a sort of tank disguised as an RV. Winger and Ziskey snag their MP girlfriends (P.J. Soles and Sean Young) and head into Soviet territory. And it all dovetails from there.
In part, the complete devolution into chaos was to be expected. It's certainly a hallmark of Ramis' early scripts, and they proved to be wildly hysterical in such gems as Animal House and Caddyshack. But the problem here is that they're actually squaring off against Soviets, not the authority that keeps them down. Stripes is meant to be a continuation of Animal House and its light-hearted post-Nixon rebellion against the stagnant and corrupt American institutions, a mockery of the absurdity of authority having the audacity to tell us what's right when they are so wrong. But there's nothing funny in the film's climax; it's simply action. And it ends with Winger and Ziskey accepted as heroes and welcomed into the machine instead of breaking free of it.
For that reason, Stripes is perhaps most remembered as the bridge between Ramis' early, brilliant but ill-focused sense of chaotic misanthropy and the more restrained, heartfelt writer-director who would eventually come up with something as refined as Groundhog Day. He wouldn't find the right balance between action and comedy until his subsequent film, Ghostbusters, which also put his drier side on full display. Nevertheless, Stripes is a great film for its first 2/3, and it belongs on the shelves of any comedy fan, particularly someone who likes Bill Murray.