John Winger (Bill Murray) is a photographer supporting himself as a taxi driver, and he's having a bad day. Not only does he quit his rotten job, but when he gets home his car is repossessed and his girlfriend walks out on him, so he decides to join the army. Taking his friend Ziskey (Harold Ramis) along, they both enlist and swiftly go into basic training, faced with the stern sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates), who takes an immediate dislike to Winger after hearing his attempts to lighten the mood with sarcastic comments. Winger and Ziskey are going to find that army life is no holiday.
Written by Len Blum, Dan Goldberg and star Harold Ramis, Stripes was very much in the tradition of the army comedy. Take a bunch of misfits and whip them into shape to do their country proud is the formula that the film sticks with, except that Winger doesn't seem much different at the end than when he went in at the start. Bill Murray's wisecracking, devil-may-care persona is honed to perfection here, but I think he makes a better parapsychologist than a soldier.
Early on, we are introduced to Winger and Ziskey's comrades, and they are as you'd expect. Ox (John Candy) joined up to lose weight, Francis (George Jenesky) wants to be called "Psycho" and obviously joined for the opportunity to kill people, and then there's the simpleton who joined before he was drafted, not realising there was no draft any more. Romantic interest for our heroes is provided by two military policewomen, Stella (P.J. Soles) and Louise (Sean Young), who tend to be around when Winger and Ziskey are making fools of themselves.
Although there are funny moments, the film isn't too consistent. It's almost complacent in the way it settles into having Murray make a stream of inappropriate comments in the face of authority for cheap laughs. For every good line there is an item of lame slapstick or a joke that falls flat, and it's difficult to believe the idiot captain (John Larroquette) would have risen that high in the ranks, even if he provides a couple of amusing moments (like the business with the hand grenade). There is, however, one example of laddish humour that looks to the future: the bar with the mud wrestling.
The trouble with Stripes is not so much that Winger is changed by his experiences, because we don't want to see the slob reformed anyway, but that he succeeds in working with the system to fight against the might of the Soviets for the finale, despite being the same slob he was at the beginning. Previously, the sole serious scene is where Hunka (well played by Oates) confronts Winger alone, leading to an attempted desertion, yet this is quickly glossed over.
So for the last half hour, purely for reasons of "You too could do this well in the army!" patriotism, we have to accept that Winger could orchestrate a rescue mission behind enemy lines. It's the sort of thing Arnold Schwarzenegger would be doing a few short years later, only this time nobody dies. Wouldn't it be nice to see an army comedy where the misfits were chucked out for once? Doo Wah Diddy, indeed. And ponder this: if it weren't for Stripes, there probably wouldn't have been any Police Academy movies. Full Metal Jacket is funnier. Music by Elmer Bernstein.