Stripes (1981)

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There is something essential about Bill Murray. You can make a movie a hundred times with a hundred different actors, but when you cast Bill Murray you will get something utterly unique. The basic story of Stripes is one that has been told dozens of times, the slacker loser who joins the Army and succeeds against the odds. But when Bill Murray is the lead, things get interesting. Suddenly it’s not just about the slacker who joins the Army and learns how to be a soldier, now it’s about how the Army learns how to chill out a little.

Murray stars as a down-on-his-luck guy who has just lost everything— his job, his apartment, his girlfriend (“You can’t go! All the plants are gonna die!” he pleads). With no prospects, he decides joining the military is as good an idea as any. His best friend (played by the equally invaluable Harold Ramis) decides to tag along. The pair go through many of the usual military-in-training comedy beats, but the attitude that Murray, Ramis and the rest of the cast bring to the table make everything feel fresh and fun.

And oh, that cast. Start with Warren Oates as Sergeant Hulka. In any other script, with any other actor, he’d be a very standard drill instructor character. Oates gives us depth beyond what we expect, and an expert eye for comic timing. (Watch how his delivery informs the classic “Lighten up, Francis” line.) John Candy was already known on the comedy scene thanks to SCTV, but his role here as the loveable Ox helped solidify his rising star. Young John Larroquette perfectly embodies the buffoonish Captain Stillman. All these characters are expertly juggled by director Ivan Reitman, who three years later would again direct Murray and Ramis in Ghostbusters.

But at the end of the day, Murray is the one who makes this film, embodying his character with a strange combination of passion and disaffection. When the time comes for Murray to give a rousing speech to the members of his platoon on the eve of their graduation ceremony, we’re entertained on two levels: One, because there’s some genuine inspiration there, and two, because it simultaneously undercuts the military and the United States itself. “We’re Americans with a capital ‘A!’ You know what that means? Do ya? That means our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world!”

Stripes is available for streaming on Netflix.