Should women be sent into combat? How would the American public deal with seeing their daughters, as well as their sons, coming home in body-bags? What's more important - a woman's right to equal opportunity employment and job advancement, or the demoralising effect of frontline soldiers lingering around shattered female casualties?
GI Jane asks all these questions about the role of women in the military and, predictably, answers few. Mainstream movies have rarely been the place to air contentious matters, and when they do - - for example, rape in The Accused, or AIDS prejudice in Philadelphia - - it' a media event. With far-from-emotional director Ridley Scott and far-from-heavyweight actress Demi Moore, it's no surprise that GI Jane takes the adventure bang-shoot route.
Neither Scott nor Moore have been very successful recently. His White Squall bombed, while a string of failures like Striptease have made her a laughing stock. Is this the film to set them both up and seal the deal? Well, it won't do either of them any harm, but it won't set the screen alight either. GI Jane is a rather obvious re-treading of the army training film, and as such covers the familiar gung-ho clichés marched over by the likes of An Officer And A Gentleman and Heartbreak Ridge. The main character's a woman, but in plot terms it isn't actually that different from Gere's working-class background in An Officer And A Gentleman - - it's just another obstacle to overcome.
Thus follows a familiar roll call. The tough-as-nails (but fair) instructor (Viggo Mortensen) spends his spare time reading DH Lawrence, listening to classical music, having his hair cut and watching his fellow officers strip and oil rifles. The demanding training regime leads to internal tension, as muscles are flexed by the ton, teams are bonded by blood and sweat and, as with Top Gun, the film climaxes with a ""real"" combat mission. It's fun, but don't expect anything you haven't seen before.
The twist this time, of course, is that it's Demi doing it. Stripped of any excess body fat by months of exercise, head shaved and unreasonably large breast implants surging against her crisp, white Navy issue t-shirt, she strikes an impressive, if somewhat unusual, image of sexual energy. Blame it on Jet from Gladiators, but the sight of her doing sit-ups, rolling in the surf and performing one-armed press-ups (can you? I can't) was more appealing for me than her silly gyrations in Striptease. And yes, there is a shower scene. But anyway...
Counterpointing the brutality of the training is the politics of the situation. Senator DeHaven leaks the story of her guinea pig to the media, while O'Neil's Navy boyfriend is privy to the military's smear campaign against her. All they need is a history of drug use or some sexual indiscretion and they can save the cost of fitting tampon machines in all armoured personnel carriers. Again, this is all quite entertaining, but strictly by the numbers.
What is different about GI Jane is the striking look of the film. Scott delivers a mainstream movie that's as dark and moody as many an arthouse flick. The character delivering the dialogue is often a mere silhouette for all but the end of the shot, when they walk into the faintest pool of light. And, resisting the Tony Scott urge to wobble the camera around all the time, Ridley saves the motion for the combat, when ragged hand-held camera shots are replaced by furious editing and stylised, staggered zooms synched with bursts of gunfire. Top stuff.
So should or shouldn't women be in the front-line? The film manages to at least mention all the arguments. A black candidate tells how his grandad couldn't be a gunner in World War Two because ""negroes have poor night vision". "The course commander demonstrates that women are a risk to prisoners because of the threat of blackmail rape, and the male characters agree that the fairer sex simply aren't strong enough. Being Hollywood, though, O'Neil proves them all wrong.
Despite this, GI Jane still falls short of taking a solid stance. As far as the career side of the forces goes, it agrees that women should have as many promotion opportunities and choices as men. ""Do you really want to be squatting in a jungle with your team looking at your ass?"" asks the senator. ""I believe I should have the right to choose"," O'Neil replies. It argues that if women are as smart and fit as men, then the M-16 rifle more than makes up for the differences in strength.
Yet in the final reel firefight, it's clear that the film-makers are troubled by this message of equality through firepower. O'Neil goes in with the boys, but never actually gets to waste anyone. One of her squad always does the killing, while she concentrates on saving lives or using her military smarts to think her way out of the situation. A personal victory for Lt O'Neil then, but GI Jane is hardly likely to strike a blow for gun-fixated, blood-lust female officers sweating it out in military jobs around the globe.