Stripes was made by much of the same creative team that made Meatballs, but it's a strong improvement over that film. I believe that's partially due to them learning and growing over the two years, as Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had worked on Caddyshack in between this, and also because of the addition of some strong cast members like John Candy, Judge Reinhold, John Larroquette, and John Diehl.
Stripes is also much more focused than either Meatballs or Caddyshack, because the plot isn't just "a series of whacky events at boot camp" but also shows at least some degree of characters growth for both Murray's John and Ramis' Russell as they go from being losers with no real future to actual soldiers. It is of course a comedy, so it's not exactly a sharp dramatic change, but it does help to give the film much more focus than those previous films had.
This was also Ramis' first time working on a film, and while I chose to do this project around Murray's films, I have to admit I have a really strong soft spot for Ramis. The reason why is related to the next film we'll see the two of them together in, but his goofy charm is also present here. His inexperience as an actor does show, as some of his line delivery can occasionally be a little flat, and you can tell there are times when he's just looking to Murray or Candy to give him something to react to. But that awkwardness actually helps, such as in the scene when the two of them are enlisting, and Murray starts singing in ominous tones as the officer hands Russell the papers to sign. The big grin Ramis has plastered on his face tells you he's just really enjoying being there and watching Murray perform, and it adds an extra element to the moment you might not get from someone more experienced. He also just has a wonderfully expressive face, and even when he's just mugging Candy, he steals some of the attention from that scene.
The movie does rely on the strength of its various bits and pieces, and naturally some are going to be better than others. Murray does carry the majority of them, like when he's leading the troops at the graduation ceremony or flirting with P.J. Soles character. That moment is also a strong improvement over Meatballs, as while there is still a little bit of "She doesn't like him, oh wait she does" to the plot thread, the two of them have more chemistry and it comes off a little more natural. I was also happy to see that the schmuck he is at the beginning of the picture isn't rewarded for his garishness, but instead flat out dumped by his girlfriend. Instead of inappropriately tackling P.J. Soles, he pokes at her with kitchen utensils. That probably sounds awful as a description but it's not as violent as it sounds, and the scene actually comes off really cute.
There's also some more raunchiness and nudity here, as seems to be the status quo for adult comedies of this period. John Larroquette's character spies on female soldiers in the shower, and the gang goes to a strip club where John Candy ends up mud wrestling four women. I will say that it's at least believable that Murray's character's idea of a fun night out for the boys would be that type of thing, but I also don't know that it was necessary to really spend so much time on it. Mostly because you could take out the nudity and this would probably end up being a PG film that anyone could enjoy.
The movie also changes in tone a bit after the guys graduate, sending them on a mission. Mostly because we've had a lot of craziness leading up to this point and now suddenly we're staying focused on this one plot for the rest of the film. It's a little odd to see them become action heroes, even bungling ones, after we've spent most of the film on them training and goofing off. But I can see that they wanted there to be a payoff to all that, and it does work well enough to do so, it's just not as strong as the rest of the film. But it also gave us an appearance by Joe Flaherty, and I can never say no to that.
Overall, I definitely recommend the movie to anyone who loves comedy. I also watched the extended cut this time around, and it adds a few more funny scenes to the film as well as a little exposition that was probably cut for a reason, but leaving those moments in didn't make the movie drag at all. It's a fun time and a good film in the careers of Reitman, Murray, Ramis and Candy.