Ah, Stripes. Along with Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Caddyshack, it's one of the true classics of modern American comedy. (Well, the "misfit slob" sub-genre of American comedy that had its heyday in the late 70s and early 80s, anyway.) Comedic refugees from SCTV, SNL, and National Lampoon were just beginning to make their mark on the movie screens during these years, and several fantastic farces were the result. 20-some years later, Stripes remains one of the best. Before they hit the big-time with this military comedy, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Ivan Reitman (along with screenwriters Len Blum and Dan Goldberg) collaborated on the summer camp comedy Meatballs, which proved to be a big hit. But that was also a low-budget kid's flick that cost about a million bucks Canadian.
Stripes was the first opportunity for Murray, Ramis & Reitman to hit Hollywood together. (Ivan and Harold had previously worked together on Animal House, of course.) A project that was originally meant to be a Paramount Pictures military comedy for Cheech & Chong became a Columbia Pictures military comedy for Bill Murray. And Bill didn't want his old pal Harry working just as a screenwriter, so he agreed to do Stripes only if Harold Ramis could be his co-star.
And to say that Stripes has slowly ripened over the years into a true-blue and widely adored comedy classic ... well, such effusive praise may be tainted by my own affection for the movie, but c'mon; find me a GUY who doesn't like Stripes. (The guy's got to be at least 25 years old, though.)
Plotwise, we're not exactly re-inventing the wheel here: sarcastic schlub and lovable loser John Winger, entirely disillusioned with the stresses of everyday city life, decides to join the United States Army. And he gets his somewhat nerdly best buddy Russell (who really ought to know better) to join him in basic training.
Basically you can break Stripes down into three easy slices:
1. The early stuff in which John's life slowly lurches into misery while Russell tries to cheer him up.
2. The army training material, which is absolutely packed to the rafters with familiar faces and seriously hilarious moments.
3. The "rescue finale," which is the section that even some of the most ardent Stripes fans find rather scattershot and not all that amusing. (Act III works just fine for me, though I can understand the complaints.)
Taken as a whole, Stripes is not much more than a well-constructed vehicle for the unique comedic skills of Mr. Bill Murray. But don't tell director Ivan Reitman that; the filmmaker wisely chose to support Mr. Murray (in only his second starring role) with a fantastic ensemble cast. At the outset, Ramis looks like he'll be playing a full-on straight man to Murray's wild ways, but the screenwriter morphs into a comic actor right before your eyes. And without Ramis and his exasperated reactions to Murray's mania, Stripes just wouldn't be as funny.
But there's also the late, great and always adorable John Candy as Dewey Oxburger; a young and hilariously sleazy John Laroquette as the obtuse Capt. Stillman; Sean Young and P.J. Soles as a pair of marvelous military policewomen; and the immortal Warren Oates as the steel-toed drill sergeant who butts heads with Winger and his laid-back ways.
You want a little more pedigree with your goofy little army comedy? How about cinematography by Bill Butler ... the guy who cut his teeth on The Godfather and Deliverance before he shot Jaws, Grease, and Frailty? One major difference between the slob comedies of yesteryear and the ones of today is that of simple craftsmanship. When Bill Murray was just finding his feet in the movie biz, his producers hired guys like Bill Butler -- whereas Adam Sandler's early movies were shot by sitcom directors. It takes something as simple as that to make the difference between a "fun comedy" and a movie that still has millions of fans more than twenty years after its release. Ditto the supremely fine work from old-school composer Elmer Bernstein. His musical score is a rousing and classy shot of adrenalin to a movie that really needs that extra dose of spit & polish. (Do Adam Sandler's early movies even have musical scores? And no, Culture Club does not count.)
Keep in mind that I'm not trashing Sandler here; just the formless and amateurish way in which his movies are constructed. My point is that even though Stripes is precisely as silly and disposable as Happy Gilmore is, the "old-fashioned" boys' comedies usually looked and felt like real movies.
So clearly I have a lot of longtime affection for Stripes; the flick makes me laugh as much today as it did back when I was twelve. It houses one of Bill Murray's most endearingly funny lead performances, it works as a mild send-up of military procedure, it allows several of its background characters to shine in small doses, it's got guns, explosions, bemused disdain for authority, and naked breasts - which are things that all guys love ... and it's one of the most eminently quotable comedies you're ever likely to come across. And when something proves to be "quotable" for more than two decades, that usually means there was some crafty comedic screenwriting buried beneath all the improv.
Video: Knowing full well that a classic of Stripes' caliber was due for a Special Edition re-release some time soon, I never did pick up the old bare-bones DVD release. As such, I cannot compare the Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic transfer to the earlier DVD, but I can say that I've never seen Stripes looking quite this good. You'll still notice a fair share of print fleckage and "artifacting" (if I'm even using that term correctly), but the colors are bright and the flick sure looks pretty in its original aspect ratio.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English. Sounds great, especially that bombastic Bernstein score I was gushing about a few paragraphs back. Optional English captions are available.
OK, since this DVD has been announced, anticipated, and discussed as an "Extended Cut," I'll tell all you Bill Murray fans exactly what you want to hear:
This DVD gives you the option to watch the theatrical cut or the extended edition with just one flick of the remote. What's the difference between the two versions? Six scenes that run about 18 minutes all told; watch the extended edition and each of the new scenes will be preceded by an onscreen signal. (Oddly, you cannot watch the extended cut without the new scene "markers.") Or you could simply stick with the theatrical version we all know and love -- and then watch all six of the new additions via the deleted scenes option.
As a lifelong admirer of this particular movie, I was very interested in seeing these deleted scenes, and I'm thrilled that they were included on the DVD ... but I'll be sticking with the theatrical cut from now on. My sincerest thanks to Columbia Home Video for including both versions of the film on this DVD. (Well, it's actually only one version of the movie; the extra scenes get slipped into the extended cut via the magical art of "seamless branching".)
The deleted scenes go a little something like this:
John's Apartment offers a lot more arguing between John and Russell regarding their opposing views on joining the army. This sequence appears right after a winded Winger, early in the film, gives up on his push-ups and wins a few bucks from Russell.
Montage & South America is a bizarre and surprisingly lengthy little subplot that sees John and Russell go AWOL. During this little side-trip our heroes poke fun at some paratroopers, jump out of an airplane, and run afoul of some seriously unpleasant South American soldiers -- all while Russell is tripping his face off on acid.
Stillman's Office allows Winger to toss a little back-talk towards the perpetually befuddled Capt. Stillman.
You Two Volunteer is a brief explanation as to how John and Russell earned babysitting duty on a Top Secret military vehicle.
The Chateau gives us a clear indication as to why these two idiots would steal a Top Secret military vehicle in the first place: to get laid! Fans of the young and vibrant P.J. Soles will consider this deleted scene the absolute highlight of the DVD. Why? Well, let's just say the boobies come out. Quite a lot, actually.
Platoon in Trouble shows Winger and Russell, out in front of the chateau, as they argue (once again) about whether or not they should go and rescue their soldier buddies. Guess which one doesn't want to go.
All six of these excised scenes are a lot of fun to watch; they deliver extra doses of Murray's trademark wit, plus we get to see quite a bit more of Ramis, Young, and Soles. (In Soles' case, a lot more!) But I don't think these new additions make Stripes an appreciably better movie. I suppose the material at the "chateau" would help to bridge Act II and Act III just a bit ... but it's fairly easy to see why the filmmakers opted to cut this specific material. The original cut of Stripes runs 107 minutes, and the 18 "new" minutes only serve to slow down the pace just a little bit. Again, thrilled to see this forgotten old footage, but for me the original cut is just perfect the way it is.
There's also an audio commentary featuring director/co-producer Ivan Reitman and co-writer/co-producer Dan Goldberg, which should certainly prove to be a treat for the fans. The filmmakers look back on their baby with good humor and amusement, dropping all sorts of anecdotes and factoids along the way. Good stuff, although there's a bit of repitition between the commentary and...
A 2-part retrospective documentary entitled "Stars & Stripes" that's also quite a treat for the fans. A whole bunch of cast & crew members pop up to talk Stripes, from the screenwriters and the director to actors like John Diehl, Judge Reinhold, Sean Young, P.J. Soles, John Laroquette, and (yes) even Bill Murray himself. (Looks like Murray's interview bits may have been shot while he was on location for Lost in Translation, but that's just an educated guess on my part.) Taken together, the two parts of "Stars & Stripes" run just under an hour long. Much of the first half is devoted to "actor talk," meaning there's lots of "Oh, he was great/she was hilarious" kind of chatter, but there's also an air of warmth and affection from most of the participants -- as if they really do like this crazy little comedy they made 23 years ago! Part 2 focuses on the army's involvement with the production, the unexpectedly excellent teamwork between John Candy and John Diehl, the "Aunt Jemima Treatment," and a young Mr. Reitman's confident directorial touch.
Included among the trailers you'll find the original Stripes promo (in Full Frame) along with those for D.E.B.S., Hitch, and Sony Pictures' 80's Hits: Ghostbusters, The Big Chill, The Karate Kid, St. Elmo's Fire, Stripes, and Stand By Me.
I've avoided saying it throughout this entire review, but if you're asking me if this new Stripes DVD is worthy of your 14 bucks ... I gotta say that's the fact, Jack. (Groan.) Take it from a child of the 80s who was absolutely addicted to the early works of Comedy Demigod Bill Murray when I say the extras are a whole lot of fun, the technical merits are quite impressive, and the movie stands up as well today as it ever has. So if you're even half the Stripes fan that I am, consider this Special Edition an absolute must-own.