Stripes: Special Edition Review
Stripes is the army comedy from 1981 that isn't Private Benjamin (thank goodness) and the Bill Murray-Harold Ramis starrer directed by Ivan Reitman that isn’t Ghostbusters. Made three years before the spooks came a-calling, it was the third film for a triumvirate who had already collaborated successfully on Meatballs and Caddyshack, but was significant for featuring Ramis’ first appearance in front of the camera. Despite their shared history, however, the two comedians were not Reitman’s first choice for the film: his original pitch to the studios had been “Cheech and Chong join the army” and had got a long way with the script before the stoner pair dropped out. Murray was asked to fill in the main role and, to help sweeten the deal for him, Reitman asked Ramis to co-star and take a spin with the script.
The two stars play friends Winger (Murray) and Ziskey (Ramis) who, out of desperation at the state of their dead-end lives, decide to enlist in the army – as Winger, a perpetual slacker, says, “I need the discipline in my life.” The broad comedy follows their exploits as they struggle to get through the eight weeks’ basic training, run with an iron fist by a Typical Movie No-Bullshit Drill Sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and then on during their first assignment. It’s an episodic feature which prefers to let the audience just enjoy spending time in the company of the stars rather than have any complex narrative centre.
Made in 1981, it’s very much a product of its time (check out the gratutious nudity!) and, despite the fact it's a comedy, conforms to the standards of the army trainee genre. In the platoon are found all the usual suspects: The Dimwit, the Schemer, the Nutter, the Stoner and so on, and there’s a whole raft of familiar scenes too: the drill sergeant taking a dislike to one particular character, a character complaining about a prospective march and having its length doubled, a night’s leave leading to raucous complications and so on. It’s very formulaic stuff with little in the script itself to set it apart from other similar films. As intended, therefore, the film gets by purely on the charm of its leads. Bill Murray, who had just had his first proper hit role in Caddyshack the previous year, is in his typical early-phase form, his front of casual indifference every so often dissolving into moments of surprising sincerity. His insouciant charm would probably be a pain in the ass to deal with in real life but makes for consistently entertaining watching here. Regrettably, the same can’t be said for his partner. Harold Ramis will always have an element of godhood about him for being Egon, but here his performance comes across as alternatively awkward and a little smug – particularly irritating is the scene in which he reacts to Candy’s character telling them his life story. That said, he works well as a foil for Murray and the two have an easy chemistry about them, but on his own I found his work less successful.
Their co-stars are a fun bunch. While PJ Soles and Sean Young as the guys' love interests never manage to break out of the constraints of their vaguely sexist roles, the rest of the platoon each get their moments of glory. Best of the bunch is John Candy, the cheerful rogue who chuckles at his own awful jokes and fleeces the stupider cadets in games of Poker an ideal secondary character who compliments but doesn’t get in the way of the action. In many ways, the film marks the beginning of an era: many actors who went onto greater success had their first starring role here, most notably Sean Young, John Larroquette and Judge Reinhold, and indeed it was Candy’s first American film, the comedian having up to that point only shot films made in his native Canada. They all do a good job, too, with Candy’s partnership with the dozy member of the platoon, played by John Diehl, almost worth a film on its own. Less successful are the members of the cast playing officers – Warren Oates, in one of his last roles, is usually singled out as an excellent drill sergeant in the movie but I found him adequate rather than remarkable in his role, while Larroquette’s Captain Stillman is painted with strokes too broad for even this picture (amongst his crimes are playing with toy soldiers and spying on the women’s showers).
Reitman, who despite the fact he was directing his fifth film had only just entered the mainstream with Meatballs, does a good job of keeping control on proceedings while still giving his stars free rein to improvise as they like. Some of the best moments come in the film from such moments, such as John Candy’s look at horror at his haircut or Murray riffing on how an army needs a big toe. Shot in a mere forty days, some of the set-ups must have been a bit of a nightmare, especially the scenes set in the drilling yard and the climactic sequence, but Reitman handles all the chaos with a firm hand and presents a deceptively disciplined film that gives the impression of being rather anarchic.
But while it’s all very genial and diverting, there are arguably no big chuckles to be had. The film’s big set pieces are okay but not ribtickling with one, the mud wrestling scene, now faintly embarrassing. The final third of the film, in which the platoon go off on an adventure in Europe, feels tacked on, the characters' arcs of struggling to graduate having been resolved successfully, but there's no denying there's satisfaction to be had in seeing the characters in action. The biggest pleasure, however, is in seeing Murray and Candy flexing their muscles before going onto bigger and better things, but even aside from those two there's enough here to keep one mildly amused for its hour forty running time. A decent film then, that fulfills its target of broad comedy well but has aged a little. It's still far better than Private Benjamin though.
The film is presented on one single-sided dual-layered disk. The main menu has a bright design based on army insignia, with a short clip from the graduation scene running in the middle. There are six options on the menu: strangely perhaps, the Play Movie selection is found in the bottom right hand corner. The other five are Special Features, Subtitles, Trailers, Scene Selections and Audio Set Up, all of which lead to appropriate submenus which are easily navigable and are illustrated by stills from the movie overlaid on the insignia, the transition between menus accompanied by a sound clip from the film. The disk does a particularly good job with its subtitles: just look at the number of different languages covered, with the commentary also subtitled in English, Danish, Italian and Spanish. The documentary is likewise covered, but the trailers are subtitled only in Danish, Italian and Spanish.
The film as presented is an extended version with six deleted scenes edited back in with new music which blends seamlessly with Elmer Bernstein's original score. The most noteworthy of these is the extended sequence set in Mexico which belies its Cheech and Chong roots, and doesn’t sit that well with the rest of the film, but the rest of them fit in fine. As the film has been specially edited together with these new scenes, there is no option to watch the original theatrical version.
It’s okay, but not great. There’s a lot of edge enhancement cropping up all over the place, while in general the image is soft and a little grainy. Broadly what you would expect of a film from twenty-odd years ago.
Good, although perhaps not as crystal clear as it might have been. There aren’t any great aural moments that will get your speakers excited, even during the climactic battle sequences, but it does its job.
Very enjoyable commentary from Reitman and co-writer Daniel Goldberg. They cover all aspects of production from original ideas through to final execution, easily shifting from discussing specific scenes being shot to more general trivia about the film. It's fluent and never flags once.
Star and Stripes
A nearly hour-long retrospective documentary, split into two parts for some reason, that seems to succeed in interviewing everyone involved in the production that’s still alive (and gosh, doesn’t Judge Reinhold look different these days?) Even Murray is interviewed on the set on Lost in Translation, but his bored soundbites are not as good as nearly everyone else’s, who remember the shoot with a lot of glee and affection. Again, covers everything from original concept through to chatting about specific sequences, this is very good indeed.
Five trailers are included, those for Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Hitch, XXX2: The Next Level and The Mask of Zorro. Which is nice.
The film itself is a bit of fluff that succeeds in its one aim to entertain. It’s a shame the six deleted scenes weren’t optionally branched in, especially as a couple aren’t to the film’s advantage, but as most are minor additions it’s only a real problem for the purists. The two extras are excellent, far better than one could expect for this kind of archive release, and will be welcomed by the film’s fans with open arms. A good package.