GI JANE is way classier than its male counterparts RISE OF COBRA, RETALIATION and THE MOVIE, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much of a straight-ahead action movie it is, complete with triumphant music by Trevor Jones (CLIFFHANGER), themes of fight brotherhood and many a badass training montage. It’s built around the idea of Demi Moore having to achieve a level of physical toughness never officially reached by a woman before, which is a little far-fetched, I know. But the actress acquits herself admirably, obviously trained intensely and shows off in many sweaty pull-up and one-armed pushup scenes like an ’80s Dolph, Stallone or Van Damme movie might have. I think maybe Ridley Scott was on a mission to one-up what James Cameron did with Linda Hamilton in T2. To get him back for ALIENS.
It’s also an issue movie, inspired by the debate of whether or not to allow women in combat in the U.S. military. Moore plays Jordan O’Neill, a lieutenant in military intelligence who knows her shit far beyond expectations. If she were a man she probly would’ve moved to some sort of special ops team where she could take advantage of her expertise, but women aren’t allowed there.
Until now. When a female senator (Anne Bancroft) cleverly throws her weight around at a confirmation hearing and gets the military to agree to a number of women-in-combat test cases, O’Neill is chosen as a good poster girl – skilled, but not too butch. So she gets to try out for the Navy SEALs. This was before they were known for killing Osama bin Laden, this is when they were known as Jesse Ventura’s buddies. But they were among the toughest of the tough. They bring in the very best special ops soldiers and even most of those guys drop out before Hell Week is over. So it’s a hell of a challenge for her. It’s a grueling test of strength and endurance that only a small percentage of men can hope to survive, not believed possible for a woman. And that’s not even figuring in the likelihood that nobody there wants a woman to be able to do it.
So it’s primarily a boot camp movie, that nightmarish section of FULL METAL JACKET reimagined as a triumph of the underdog story. She has to deal not only with the near impossible feat of endurance, not only with the resentment of men who think she doesn’t belong there and superiors who feel like they’re being jerked around by outsiders who don’t understand their world, but also with the idea that she needs special provisions like female-only stairs on an obstacle course and separate quarters. She’s smart enough to understand that if she gets any type of special treatment she’ll never be accepted as a member of the team. But even if nobody cared it seems pretty clear she wouldn’t want to be handicapped anyway.
Things look so bleak that just knowing one single person is rooting for her is a big deal. When a female medic gives her a small gesture of sisterly solidarity it’s hugely satisfying.
Some of the soldiers are more dickish than others, so she has more than one nemesis here, but the main one is Master Chief Viggo Mortensen. It’s his job to scare the shit out of the potential recruits, and he pretends to delight in making people quit, not allowing the first day to end until at least one person does. There’s a big bell in the middle of the camp that you ring in order to drop out, and it seems to taunt them by being there. Just ring it and you’re free. You can stop carrying giant metal things through the mud, you can take a shower, sleep, eat from a plate. It kinda reminded me of HANDS ON A HARD BODY. When the first guy stumbles over to it in a daze, his buddies yelling not to do it, his mind is clearly somewhere far away.
O’Neill takes more of a beating and goes through a longer ordeal than most slasher movie heroines. (Come to think of it, they could have a slasher movie that takes place during military Hell Week. They got enough of ’em during sorority Hell Week.) It’s made worse by her teammates instinctively not listening to her ideas and therefore fucking up their exercises, leaving her to take the fall. Most memorably their disobeying her gets them taken prisoner in a war game and Master Chief beats her so brutally that his macho second in command raises an objection and has to go outside.
Master Chief is a great nemesis because he’s an asshole but he’s not evil. He sincerely believes that he would be putting his men in danger by passing her, and therefore it’s his duty to stop her. He’s got some dumb supporting arguments, which O’Neill rebuts well, but clearly he believes he’s doing the right thing, and that makes him more formidable. Despite looking ridiculous in his tight khaki shorts.
Ironically he ends up accidentally helping her, because his ruthlessness towards her starts to seem over-the-line to her fellow soldiers and they finally start rooting for her. More importantly she wins their respect by persevering, getting some good shots in on Master Chief and yelling for him to “Suck my dick!”
Scott does a great job of making this kind of punishment seem appealing. The idea of being taxed to the limit and beaten to a pulp and just getting up and going and going, never giving up, still stumbling forward while the others are dropping all around you. It’s running a marathon, or a Tough Mudder run. It’s a boxing or MMA match, it’s American Ninja Warrior, it’s fighting the League of Shadows right after climbing the mountain, it’s training with Pai Mei. The feeling of accomplishment if you can push your body and mind beyond its limits. Looks like hell, but also very satisfying.
At the end it goes full action movie, they get unexpectedly sent on an important mission and she and Master Chief even have to work together. Good shit. It’s weird though, during Hell Week they only really got tested in endurance and teamwork, they didn’t seem to receive any elite training in addition to what they came in with. I hope they know what they’re doing.
That she’s being treated this way for being a woman just makes her a great underdog hero. I think it says something that she doesn’t care about the politics at first. She has no interest in making a statement. But when faced with blatant unfairness she fights back. She’s like women now who say that they’re not feminists. They just want to stay out of it, but they might not always be able to.
I do think the movie (written by My Two Dads writer Danielle Alexandra and Riddick creator David Twohy) is a little too cynical when (spoiler) the senator who started the whole thing sells her out, she was just doing it as a stunt and didn’t even want it to succeed. I know politicians are often/usually full of shit and have trouble getting shit done, but is it too much to believe in a woman politician sincerely fighting for the rights of women? I don’t think it is.
So here we are 17 Veteran’s Days since this came out. The military has been more integrated, but it’s still believed to be physically impossible for a woman to pass the SEAL tests, and there is some fear of them having to lower the qualifications to be gender-equal. I’m not sure how influential the movie has been in that discussion.
What has really changed since ’97 is the policy on gays in the military. In the movie she gets temporarily kicked out by being framed as a lesbian. I think the movie shows the ridiculousness of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and it implies that a very sympathetic character actually is gay and can’t be herself without putting her whole career at risk. But it doesn’t really get into that fight, it seems like we have to be outraged about the lie, that she was set up, not that the policy is unfair. The soldier that’s most immediately accepting of O’Neill is McCool (two-time Seagal co-star Morris Chestnut), a black man who compares her treatment to previous generations of his family trying to get into the military. But they don’t have time to get into the gay issue in those conversations.
It really does feel disappointing when she’s suddenly back home. She went so far and now she’s just jerked out of there because of some shitheads pulling a dick move. Back home in a comfortable bed with her boyfriend and it’s painful as hell. Very effective. I really like this movie.
Since Scott has done a prequel to ALIEN and is working on a sequel to BLADE RUNNER I hope he’ll keep in mind something like GI JANE II: HELL HATH NO FURY. She’s retired and living in seclusion somewhere and some white supremacists or meth dealers or sex traffickers or somebody push her too far. Or maybe she’s an aging mercenary and she goes on a mission and it’s gotta be in a really backwards woman-oppressing country for dramatic purposes.
Have we ever seen a “retired badass reluctantly pulled back into the world of beating and killing a whole bunch of sorry motherfuckers who sorely deserve it” movie where the badass is a lady? I can’t think of one. But it’s a barrier we can pass even without finding a senator who truly believes in it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.