Over the last few weeks, this column has seen two different reviews of the new G.I. Joe: Retaliation film – one by “Joe” fanatic, Andy Burns, which you can read here and one by regular Los Angeles cinema-goer, Emily McGuiness, which you can check out here.
It’s safe to say that the two movies in the franchise are pretty cheesy viewing. In private circles, I’ve been known to mercilessly rip the first flick – yet I still have an interest in viewing the second. Call it nostalgia for the cartoons I watched and the action figures I collected and played with as a kid.
Still, as we’re experiencing military grandstanding in North Korea, active operations in Afghanistan, and political machinations back home in North America, it’s a great time to curl up on the couch, ditch the cheese, and watch a great G.I. film that carries a weighty and important philosophy.
I’m talking, of course, about the underappreciated G.I. Jane.
Released in the late summer of 1997, G.I. Jane was a box office success if not a critical one, opening at #1 and keeping that position through its second week of release. I’d say that the film christened the glorious second phase of Ridley Scott’s career. With the momentum of G.I. Jane, the acclaimed director would go on to release Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven within the next eight years. There aren’t many with a résumé that can claim that strong a sequence of box-office draw and Academy Award wins.
G.I. Jane starts furiously. At a Washington, D.C. Senate Committee hearing we’re told that the Navy has made strides in accepting women within the ranks of their forces through actions such as sensitivity training – a great sign against any perceived sense of inequality between the sexes. Future Secretary of the Navy Hayes and bold Texan Senator Lillian DeHaven, played absolutely brilliantly by Anne Bancroft, are at ends of the same dirty spectrum, vying against each other in a political power play for votes. Who’s righteous? Who’s archaic? Who’s justified?
It’s these two Machiavellian characters that weave the basket that Demi Moore’s Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil trips into, stomach-churning plans that unfold as the film progresses towards its climax. The right for gender neutrality, for females to be considered as equal as their male counterparts in the armed forces and the right to serve and die for their nation, that is the prevalent argument that exists at the heart of G.I. Jane. Sure, it’s easy to nod your head and confirm that statement as a truth when you’re a passive observer. It’s another thing to endorse that statement within a male-dominated institution like the Navy S.E.A.L.S. They’re the baddest of the bad asses, after all.
Senator DeHaven handpicks the bright O’Neil, as a test case to prove her point: pass the three-month S.E.A.L.S. training regime, and women will be allowed as equals within the U.S. armed forces. Unfortunately, no one believes this will ever happen. Not Senator DeHaven, not Secretary Hayes, and not Lieutenant O’Neil’s boyfriend, Lieutenant Commander Royce, played by Jason Beghe. In fact, he frankly tells O’Neil that the marines “will eat cornflakes out of her skull.” Despite the warnings, the disapprovals and her own misgivings, the excited O’Neil accepts the offer and the film races off to Florida and the S.E.A.L. training base – where no one accepts the woman nor her easy acceptance into the program.
The trailer to G.I. Jane is pretty horribly cut, but it does hint at the aspects of the film that make it so great: the political intrigue, sexual politics and the performances of the actors.
Under Ridley Scott, Demi Moore is a revelation here – the highlight of a career, entirely giving herself to the performance. Her commitment is evident in every scene, every facial gesture and every line of dialogue she utters. In one pivotal scene, O’Neil, in an effort to be treated like every other male recruit, steals herself away into the base barbershop and shaves her head of her long hair. More than that, it’s at this moment that the character symbolically vows to complete her training – a moving scene, not least of which because she presumes to lose some aspect of her femininity.
Viggo Mortensen, as Command Master Chief John James Urgayle, is a hard trainer, taken to abhorring the female recruit who has been forced upon him, disrupting his instruction and, essentially, making his soldiers weaker. Mortensen, brings so much gravitas to the Master Chief role. Not only is he to be respected and feared, but he brings an unexpected, poetic side to the man, quoting D.H. Lawrence in the process. Mortensen, the actor, is wholly lost inside the creation of this character and every actor around him is made better for it.
Those that like to look for faces that they might recognize will be happy to discover Jim Caviezel as the awkward Slovnik and Scott Wilson, Hershel Greene in The Walking Dead, as the memorable $3.59 cigar-smoking Captain Salem.
There’s a great soundtrack glued to G.I. Jane as well. Ridley Scott brilliantly employs Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders for two fantastic songs: the beautifully melancholic The Homecoming, played over the famous shaven-head scene, and a moving cover of the Steve Earle-penned Goodbye.
G.I. Jane went on to gross nearly $100 million at the box office, making more internationally than domestically. Most remember the film because of the famous “suck my dick” scene; a scene that elicited a few joking laughs in the theatre when I originally saw it. Still, that particular moment is, perhaps, the most pivotal of the entire film. It’s not just O’Neil’s resolve, but also the determination and determinations of her male counterparts that prove the thesis of G.I. Jane. I won’t say more than that, in case you haven’t seen it yet. The film found an important audience in rental sales too, garnering over $22 million in the living rooms of movie-watchers.
G.I. Jane is still a relevant film in today’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” present. It’s enjoyable for its action, story and performances as well as its various points of discussion dealing with the morality of politics and the philosophy of “one standard”.
It’s a film that if you haven’t seen, you should. And if you have seen it, you should revisit – best watched on a Saturday like today.