It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Stripes” is an anarchic slob movie, a celebration of all that is irreverent, reckless, foolhardy, undisciplined, and occasionally scatological. It's a lot of fun. It comes from some of the same people involved in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and could have been titled National Lampoon's Animal Army with little loss of accuracy. As a comedy about a couple of misfits who find themselves in the U.S. Army's basic training program, it obviously resembles Goldie Hawn's “Private Benjamin.” But it doesn't duplicate that wonderful movie; they could play on the same double feature. “Stripes” has the added advantage of being a whole movie about the Army, rather than half a movie (“Private Benjamin” got sidetracked with Hawn's love affair).
The movie is not only a triumph for its stars (Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) and its director (Ivan Reitman), but a sort of vindication. To explain: Reitman directed, and Murray starred in, the enormously successful “Meatballs,” which was an entertaining enough comedy but awfully ragged. No wonder. It was shot on a shoestring with Canadian tax-shelter money. What Murray and Reitman prove this time is that, given a decent budget, they can do superior work--certainly superior to “Meatballs,” for starters. For Harold Ramis, who plays Murray's grave-eyed, flat-voiced, terminally detached partner in “Stripes,” this is a chance, at last, to come out from behind the camera. Ramis and Murray are both former Second City actors, but in Hollywood, Ramis has been typecast as a writer (“Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack”), maybe because he sometimes looks too goofy for Hollywood's unimaginative tastes.
In “Stripes,” Murray and Ramis make a wonderful team. Their big strength is restraint. Given the tendency of movies like this to degenerate into undisciplined slapstick, they wisely choose to play their characters as understated, laid-back anarchists. Murray enlists in the Army in a what-the-hell mood after his girlfriend throws him out, and Ramis enlists because one stupid gesture deserves another. They're older than the usual Army recruit, less easily impressed with gung-ho propaganda, and quietly amazed at their drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka, who is played by Warren Oates with tough-as-nails insanity.
The movie has especially good writing in several scenes. My favorite comes near the beginning, during a session when recruits in the new platoon get to know one another. One obviously psycho draftee, who looks like Robert De Niro, quietly announces that if his fellow soldiers touch him, touch his stuff, or interfere in any way with his person or his privacy, he will quite simply be forced to kill them. Sergeant Hulka replies: "Lighten up!" The movie's plot follows basic training, more or less, during its first hour. Then a romance enters. Murray and Ramis meet a couple of cute young military policewomen (P.J. Soles and Sean Young), and they happily violate every rule in the book. One funny scene: Murray and Soles sneak into the kitchen of the base commander's house and do unprecedented things with kitchen utensils.
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