Sunday 8 January 2012

Movie Review: Stripes (1981)

A showcase for the comedic talent of Bill Murray, Stripes is only as good as its star. Murray's laid-back sardonic style creates good friction with the motif of military discipline, but Stripes suffers from having little to offer other than Murray's attitude.

John Winger (Bill Murray) abandons his job as a taxi driver, is abandoned by his girlfriend, and has his car repossessed, all on the same day. He convinces his friend Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) that they should join the army, and off they go to training camp. The fellow recruits include the overweight Ox (John Candy) and an assortment of the psychotic and the dim. Drill Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) tries to make soldiers out of them, with limited success. Hulka's platoon muddles its way to graduation before becoming embroiled in an unexpected incursion behind the Iron Curtain.

Much of Stripes was improvised on the spot, director Ivan Reitman keeping the cameras rolling while Murray made things up and the other cast members reacted. It's a sometimes fascinating viewing experience, but the struggle to create a cohesive movie out of essentially uncoordinated comedy moments is also clear. Stripes sags and surges, meanders and regains focus, ultimately providing an interesting but bumpy ride.

When it works, Stripes delivers scenes of comic gold. Murray's speech to rally his platoon prior to the graduation ceremony is classic, as is the platoon's performance in the ceremony itself. But in the final 30 minutes featuring the unplanned invasion of Czechoslovakia, Stripes loses its way in a groan-inducing attempt to superimpose superfluous action onto a comedy, with mostly embarrassing results.

The thin ice of material that Stripes skates on is exemplified by a deleted sequence (restored in the Extended Cut) that has Winger and Ziskey hitch a ride on a military plane to an unnamed war zone, where they are captured by undefined heavily armed mercenaries and threatened with death, but save themselves when Winger starts singing Quando Quando Quando. It's a nonsensical interlude, scraping by on Murray's improvisational talent and spontaneity. A mud wrestling match between John Candy's Ox and a bevy of near-naked models is also a punch line stranded by an absence of meaningful context.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ramis proves to himself that he is no actor, his uncomfortable performance as Ziskey crossing the line from comic to incompetent. Warren Oates performs his function as the crusty drill sergeant with good intentions, while P.J. Soles and Sean Young as the Military Police officers who develop relationships with Winger and Ziskey realize early on that they need to be comely rather than convincing.

Stripes is a one-man comedy routine expanded into a military farce. It is remarkable that it works as well as it does, and this is testimony to Murray's unique talent to deliver cool humour with perfect timing.

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