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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.