Skip to main content

How strong do you have to be to pull a trigger?

G.I. Jane
(1997)

(SPOILERS) In the late ‘60s, Pauline Kael wrote a piece bemoaning (she was quite good at bemoaning) the state of US movie companies over how they were turning to England for directors. She commented, “The English can write and they can act… but they can’t direct movies”. She proceeded with a list of examples, honourably exempting Hitchcock and Carol Reed (but unforgivably omitting Michael Powell). It admittedly included a string of fair comments, but also rather unjustly picked on several lights of the comedy genre, as if that was ever, anywhere, with very rare exception, known for stylistic darlings.


Flash forward a decade and Kael would probably reconsider her assessment of the “fundamental lack of directorial energy and distinction – of any real directorial artistry”, as the influx of ad directors from British shores began to make their mark. One of whom, of course, was Sir Ridders of Scott, who rightly wowed with his directorial artistry over the course of three or four movies, yet even at that point exhibited little grasp of the importance of the screenplay (and only progressively less so since) and whose skill with actors tend to amount to hoping he’d settled for the right one (Kingdom of Heaven would firmly evidence how hit-and-miss this approach was).


Scott was nearly 60 by the time G.I. Jane came out, and some might have feared he was past it as a filmmaker, despite being a late starter in features; the director whose announcement of a new project was awaited with anticipation only a few years earlier was now reduced to churning out a flashy, vacuous star vehicle, one that made Private Benjamin look nuanced. He appeared creatively spent, still going through the motions stylistically (albeit with markedly less pictorial elegance) but bereft of any compass.


Of course, his post-Gladiator hot-ish streak and re-energisation (10 movies in the 20 years prior, 16 and counting in the 16 since) could be quite legitimately argued as simply a more productive run of style over substance, with less vacillating in between; his recognition of decent material remains as hopeless as before and, as here, when he inadvisably ventures into the territory of politically-charged material (Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies) his deficiencies as a keen thinker are cast in an even less flattering light.


But G.I. Jane, from the title down, remains, with Black Rain, on a separate tier of undisguised commercialism; elsewhere, Scott has generally at least made some gesture towards a veneer of artistic integrity or sincere intent. Jane is the kind of fare brother Tony (RIP) would have been more likely to take on, and also more than likely to have had considerably more fun with; the propaganda piece that is Top Gun, or the paranoia palace of Enemy of the State, dive headlong into their subject matter, relishing them, whatever conclusions you may draw about the finished product.


There’s no such unabashed good time to be had with G.I. Jane. Part of that may be that there’s no good time to be had with Demi Moore, even though she gets away with a skinhead every bit as well as Sigourney in Alien 3. Not that she deserved the Razzie (nomination) – what’s ridiculous about the movie isn’t really about her performance – but its essential, standard-issue, against-the-odds, crowd-pleasing premise would have played much more readily if someone with real spark had taken the lead.


Mostly, though, it’s about Sir Ridders, director for hire. He admitted Jane was a formulaic affair at the time, designed with the express intention of putting bums on seats, possibly in response to the back-to-back failures of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and White Squall. And possibly he thought – in his own, non-screenplay-savvy way – he could rekindle some of the kudos Thelma and Louise (and, in a retrospective sense, Alien) garnered him as a “feminist director”. If you can’t really blame his commercial instincts – Ridley gotta smoke cigars, and also eat – the crassness on display is entirely his baby, since he plays every clichéd element to the hilt.  


The screenplay is courtesy of Danielle Alexandra and David Twohy. The latter provided the rewrite, and he was probably the wrong guy – what Jane needed was a literate rather than a B-sensibility, if anyone was actually going to get away with exploring this subject without yielding snorts of derision.


That’s because the debate Alexandra and Twohy muster is lazily provocative, only seeming interested in making its case through shallow bombast (so much so, it’s indicative of the half-arsed execution that it didn’t do better business). The suggestion that women shouldn’t only be allowed to serve in the military (well, in the Navy) and be treated on an entirely equal footing to men, but should also be admitted to the SEALs and allowed to serve on the front line (both of which the Pentagon opened the door to last year), makes for an attention-grabbing premise. Yet the picture fudges and obfuscates its intentions repeatedly. Anne Bancroft’s self-serving senator picks Moore’s Lieutenant Jordan O’Neill as a test case on the grounds of her photogenic femininity (in comparison to other candidates), later revealing, after attempting to sabotage her prospects, that she never thought O’Neill would get so far (serving to underline Demi as the classic, root-able-for underdog). O’Neill replies “I wanted the choice. That’s how it’s supposed to be”. But supposed-to-bes are rather undermined when we’re sold a pampered Hollywood star presenting the case.


G.I. Jane is only willing to go so far in exploring its subject, before pulling back. It’s much easier just to take the leap of depicting an environment where women serve with men unquestioned, in the likes of Aliens and Starship Troopers, than traversing the minefield of getting there. The screenplay tentatively raises a few considerations/voiced objections via Viggo Mortensen’s philosopher-master chief who crudely attempts to demonstrate how easily manipulated for information the recruits would be under POW conditions, as he places O’Neill in a situation of imminent rape during a training exercise. He has earlier told her how the Israeli army encountered difficulties with equal status as male soldiers would prioritise injured female troops; his point being, the theoretical equality just wouldn’t happen in practice.


However, Scott is making a crowd-pleaser; O’Neill fights back from being pinned down, which means the raised-scenario is left unresolved (one response might be that male soldiers could just as easily be subjected to rape), and further she is given an (intended) air-punching but risibly crass rebuke of “Suck my dick!”, a that line gets her formerly-begrudging fellow recruits fully behind her.


Rather than the situation with a prospective enemy, the picture probably ought to have focussed more on military culture itself, in which sexual assault (male and female) is a pervasive problem. O’Neill’s “I wanted the choice” perspective may be sound in terms of principles of equality, but it’s filtered through Scott’s lens of rote, fist-pumping classical Hollywood concepts of heroism and bravery, right down to the finale’s “true grit” real combat situation (something recruits face even in comedies, to show they have the stuff; here it is ridiculously cheesily rendered in pre-shakycam fashion, the image beset by shallow zooms akin to reflecting the image in a piece of shaky tin foil).


He’s having his cake and eating it, offering the crumbs of a serious argument (“She’s not the problem, we are” observes Viggo sagely) but then dousing it in make-believe, smoke machines, shafts of studio light and Apocalypse Now sunsets. Should women be allowed the same opportunities for degradation, indoctrination, brutalisation and brutalising, killing and being killed (oh, and defending their country, or rather, attacking others’ countries according to the dictates of extending corporate interests) as men, if they want to? Certainly; there’s no accounting for common sense, after all (and we should extend that inclusiveness to age too, since at 35, Demi was too old, even with an officer’s waiver). Illustrative of the picture’s limited reach is the facile story Morris Chestnut recounts, concerning his father’s WWII experience (rejected from a unit because “Negroes can’t see at night”), that meets with disbelief from the same guys giving Demi a hard time.


Scott’s depiction is one of a selection of banner moments; there’s little bit of resentment from O’Neill’s colleagues to overcome (most notably from that nasty Jim Cavaziel; with behaviour like his, it’s a wonder he ever got to be our Lord); standing up to her superior – The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson –  and requesting fair treatment; performing amazing one-arm press-ups during an extended, rousing, training montage; cutting her hair while adopting a mirth-inducing empowerment pose, one suggesting she’s accidentally walked in off the set of Flashdance (with that, and her post-Striptease enhancements, Demi make a decidedly glamorous GI). Which wouldn't be such a surprise; G.I. Jane does for women in the military what that decade's Rambo: First Blood Part II did for combat veterans suffering PTSD.


It all ends in maximum respect, obviously, as O’Neill receives her Navy SEAL Combined Reconnaissance Team pin (quite why they go the route of inventing a unit when they couldn’t get military assistance, I’m not sure) and wells up when Viggo gives her his Navy Cross (these movie drill instructor guys, they’re all big softies deep down; well, except R L Ermey). She rescued Viggo, you see, in an altercation with some fiendish Libyans (thank goodness they aren’t a problem any more, right?), even though she wasn’t quite able to sling him over her shoulder.


Scott shoots with the empty sheen of an ex-ad director, so you at least know not to mistake this for having substance (he used to conjure worlds; by this point he’s merely spot-welding shots), and he’s accordingly aided by an appalling score from Trevor Jones, doing his best Hans Zimmer impression by charging every moment with imminent drama and urgency, even when (mostly) there is none.


The only person really coming out of this with a shred of dignity is Viggo (despite his short-shorts and moustache, looking for all the world like he’s auditioning for a Village People biopic); Jason Beghe also appears, pre-mangina, but is fairly nondescript. I’d actually remembered the movie being more brain-off (or brain-fart) enjoyable than it is; during the first half, the rigours of training have a certain can’t-go-wrong watchability, but without anything to really say, it soon devolves into a fusillade of tiresome tropes and knuckle-dragging postures. Probably the only lingering question is, which is inaner, this or Black Hawk Down? At least, with its title, there’s no mistaking G.I. Jane for articulate exploration of its subject matter going in.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I have a problem with my liver.

Twin Peaks 3.6 Don’t die
The season resumes form with the sixth episode, and incongruity abounds – as much as anything in Twin Peaks is any more or less incongruous than anything else – from the most endearing to the most alarming. The latter of which is up there with the very nastiest nastiness witnessed in a David Lynch joint in the form of butcher for hire Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), the most alarming killer dwarf since Donald Sutherland led himself on a wild goose chase around Venice in Don’t Look Now.


Lynch’s use of music in Don’t die is both eclectic and exemplary. He concludes with Sharon von Etten crooning Tarifa over the credits, but it’s Ike going on a bloody frenzy to the innocuous and innocent sound of BluntedBeatz’ “I AM” Oldschool HipHop Beat that really sets the episode on edge. This is Lynch at his most visceral, immediate and palpably perturbing. You hear it before you see it, the screams of the first victim in Lorraine’s office, before the pint-…

If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess.

Moana (2016)
(SPOILERS) Disney’s 56th animated feature (I suppose they can legitimately exclude Song of the South – which the Mouse House would rather forget about completely – on the grounds it’s a live action/animation hybrid) feels like one of their most rigidly formulaic yet, despite its distinctive setting and ethnicity. It probably says a lot about me that I tend to rate this kind of fare for its wacky animal sidekick as opposed to the studiously familiar hero’s journey of Moana’s title character.


You can even see the John Lasseter-Pixar influence in the fricking cute kids burbling through the opening scenes, before Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) arrives at teenagehood and heirdom to becoming the tribal chief on the Polynesian island of Motunui. And you can tick off the boxes of your Disney female protagonist required to prove herself (over-protective father opposing her desire to get out there and explore the world, meeting an unsympathetic male in whom she instils emotional growth). T…