STRIPES - DVD review

Stripes remains one of the strongest entries in the lovable-losers-against-the-establishment comedies, and one of Bill Murray's funniest overall performances.

James Plath's picture

To hear director Ivan Reitman and co-producer Dan Goldberg tell it, attempting to direct Bill Murray is like trying to train a housecat to do anything other than use a litter box. And the cast interviews for this "Extended Cut" pretty much confirm that Murray is one cool (and wildly eccentric) cat when it comes to improvising on a set. That famous scene where Murray takes out a spatula and starts to slide it under his girlfriend's buttocks? All ad libbed. The scene where Murray introduces himself in the barracks by talking about Lee Harvey and his friends making it with a cow? Ad libbed. No one ever knew what Murray was going to do next.

If you're a Murray or "Stripes" fan, you'll want to upgrade to the "Extended Cut" just for the two-part "Stars and Stripes" making-of feature. Even the enigmatic Murray appears on camera, with his patented is-he-kidding-or-is-he-serious look, granting an interview only in black light while he sips Suntory in Tokyo, where he was filming "Lost in Translation."

I just wish I hadn't drunk all that cough syrup.

Murray was made for the role of John Winger, an anti-establishment, rudderless abuser of his own body who decides to join the Army after losing his job, his girl, his car, and his apartment, all in the same day. Somehow, he talks his best friend Russell Zitsky (Harold Ramis) into joining him. Originally, we learn, the film was conceived as "Cheech and Chong join the Army," but the Latino comics wanted to "own" Reitman, and the director-producer decided to rewrite the parts with Ramis and Murray in mind, thinking Murray would do it if they could get Ramis onboard. Though Ramis wrote the script for "Meatballs" and directed Murray in "Caddyshack," this was his first time in front of the camera playing off of the unpredictable Murray. It was also the first film for John Diehl (who plays the dim-witted Cruiser), the first for Sean Young (who plays Zitsky's love interest), the first for Judge Reinhold (as pothead Elmo), and the first American film for Canadian John Candy.

The Reitman/Goldberg Bar Mitzvah (just kidding—I mean, "commentary," but this whole Murray improv thing is so contagious) takes the rivets off this soon-to-be-star vehicle and lets you see which scenes are almost totally improvised and which ones were altered significantly by the kings of improv, SNL's Murray and Toronto's Second City giant Candy. The big man pretty much adopted Diehl as his comic foil—the one he decided to verbally duel—while Murray took on the rest of the cast. Even the director got into the ad-lib act, jumping into the mud pit at the end of the infamous Candy vs. the Eye Candy bikini mud-wrestling scene. But Reitman went a little overboard when he told his cast to pull a surprise on the one venerable, veteran actor in the film and drag him into the mud during a boot camp training scene. Drill Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates, "The Wild Bunch") ended up breaking a tooth during the stunt, and Oates' tirade against the director was so memorable that the cast members can recite it word for word nearly 25 years later. Want proof? Watch the making-of feature, where each one contributes a different line from the tongue-lashing he gave Reitman, in tandem.

That's the kind of stuff you get on the "Extended Cut," and it's reason enough for fans to buy this DVD. The other major reasons for upgrading—the High Definition remastered print and the 18 minutes of deleted scenes added to the original cut—are a mixed bag (more on that later), but a classic film here.

. . . a lean, Mean, FIGHTING MACHING!

Make that, "One of those beer commercial guy films," according to P. J. Soles, who plays Murray's girlfriend, Stella. And you know, she hit it right on the head. There are "chick flicks" and there are guy films, and this one is definitely a guy film. "Stripes" came out a year after "Private Benjamin," and the guy version of that boot camp booty call seemed to be, "Ask not what the Army can do to you, ask what you can do to the Army." Whether it's Capt. Stillman (John Larroquette) playing with toy tanks in his office and spying with binoculars on women in the showers ("I wish I was a loofah" was one of Larroquette's ad libs, after which Reitman yelled "CUT" and "What the hell's a loofah?"), that topless mud-wrestling scene, the taking of Czechoslovakia with a fortified Winnebago, or the language ("Chicks dig me because I don't wear underwear"), this is real guy stuff.

But there are plenty of comedic moments that will set both genders rocking with laughter. "Stripes" is full of classic scenes and quotable lines. The split title sequence with Ramis teaching English as a second language is hilarious ("Do any of you know any English?" "Son of beach. Sheet"), but even funnier is Murray's cab routine, which screenwriter Ramis said was based on an incident that actually happened to him while he was driving a taxi. The premise—underdog losers versus the establishment (and somehow coming out on top)—may be formulaic, but Murray, Ramis, Candy and the rest are so fun to watch that they really elevate the film.

John, John, we're missing graduation!

One of the wonders of "Stripes" is that the U.S. Army actually cooperated by allowing Reitman to film at Ft. Knox, Kentucky and providing him with tanks and men—even staging a graduation ceremony for the benefit of the film. But "Stripes" has always struck me as two films jammed into one. There's the first story about basic training, where Murray and Co. wreak havoc on the base and their drill sergeant, with its "That's the fact, Jack!" rifle drill (which everyone except Murray practiced for weeks) that really puts a nice cap on the film. Then there's the sequel, where the group is picked to fly to Italy to accompany the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle (which, of course, Winger and Ziskey have to test drive by going A.W.O.L. and taking their women to a resort Chateau). When Capt. Stillman and their comrades, who have gone after them, wander into communist Czechoslovakia, there's a second climax and resolution, along with an "Animal House" style postscript. At times, especially in the "second film," "Stripes" always struck me as overly long, a film that could have been strengthened by tighter editing. So this "Extended Cut," while it intrigued me, seemed to move in the opposite direction.

There are two viewing options—extended or theatrical cut—but it would have been nice if they didn't mar the long version with subscripts. If you watch the six added scenes (John's apartment, Montage & South America, Stillman's Office, You Two Volunteer, The Chateau, and Platoon in Trouble) in the extended cut, a star pops up in subscript to tell you when the deleted scene begins and ends. As an optional feature, that would be great for the first viewing, but for those who actually prefer to watch the long version over and over, it's more than a little annoying to have these pop-ups. And unnecessary, frankly, since all the scenes are available as view-singly or view-all deleted scenes. That's the downside on the "Extended Cut." The plus is that there's a super-playful scene between Murray and Coles where we see even more of Coles without clothes, and a long scene where the animosity between Hulka and Winger is further delineated.

Video: Let's start with the High Definition transfer. Though it's admittedly better than the first digital transfer, to my eyes (and on my HD TV) it's only slightly, not significantly so. There are still tiny flecks and flickers on this new print—though not as many—and still some slight graininess. Where you can tell more of a difference is around the edges of bright reds, which often lose their delineation on a poor, VHS-quality picture or transfer. If you compare apartment scenes with Murray in his red coat you'll notice that the new transfer is, in fact, sharper. The previous release offered widescreen and "standard" (1.33:1) screen options. This new extended cut just has the widescreen (1.85:1 ratio).

Audio: The previous audio was Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, and so the 5.1 Stereo is a considerable upgrade, with sound effects now separated across the speakers. I have to say, though, that the sound isn't as full and rich as some of the 5.1s I've listed to, and it also seems to have been transferred at a slightly lower volume level than the previous release. It also has a slightly hollow qualiy. But as with the video, when you're talking about a classic comedy, any upgrade is appreciated. It beats Mono.

Extras: I'm wondering if the Suntory-sipping Murray was behind the "top secret EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle to cut out and assemble," because it's the kind of stunt he would pull. There's not a whole lot to "assemble," actually, because this miniature only takes up the equivalent of a single-sheet insert (with the flipside a preview of other Sony titles). But as I said, the two-part "making of" feature is quite good, and it includes recent interviews with Young, Coles, Ramis, Murray, Larroquette, Diehl, Reitman, and Goldberg. The Reitman/Goldberg commentary has quite a bit of overlapping with the feature, but they still have enough to say to make that worth watching . . . and upgrading to the "Extended Cut" if you already own this.

Bottom Line: "Stripes" remains one of the strongest entries in the lovable-losers-against-the-establishment comedies, and one of Bill Murray's funniest overall performances. Reitman had the good sense to let his improv experts do their thing, and "Stripes" crackles with energy because of it. With this new face lift, the DVD makes a fine new recruitment poster for potential new fans.


Film Value