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Butch-ered

G.I. Jane traps a testosterone-poisoned lunkhead in Demi Moore's body

In G.I. Jane, Demi Moore's Naval Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil, is recruited as a test case to be the first female Navy SEAL. She gets a buzzcut and loses her period. She endures the indignities of the male volunteers snickering at her in the food line. She rolls huge barrels through the surf and clambers through obstacle courses that would give Hercules a hernia. She even gets into a punch-out with her instructor, Command Master Chief John Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen), when he brutalizes her -- and she gives as good as she gets.

And through it all Jordan never once cracks a smile, which just goes to prove that women warriors can be as blankly staunch as any of their male counterparts -- at least in the movies. Jordan has been conceived as a kind of male action toy in female drag, as though any demonstration of "softness" -- i.e., femininity -- would be construed as male piggery on the part of the filmmakers. Ridley Scott, directing a script by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra, is so intent on making Jordan a kick-ass take-no-prisoners feminist standard-bearer that he doesn't allow for any of our politically incorrect qualms concerning her transformation. G.I. Jane isn't very convincing. Even the title is a con -- G.I.s are Army, not Navy.

It's not that I was expecting Private Benjamin -- after all, this is a message movie. But what's the message? That women can pull the trigger as well as men? Decades of movies have already taught us that. Maybe the message is the deep thought that a female soldier has to go it alone without even the support of other women. Jordan is selected for her SEAL tryout over the objections of the military brass at the instigation of a senator and senior member of the arms committee, Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft), who, privately, never expects her to succeed; she's just a bargaining chip in DeHaven's high-stakes political gambit to bail out some military bases. Jordan stands isolated and defiant in her crusade; not even the highest-ranking woman in Congress wants her to win. So much for sisterhood.

Brotherhood fares a bit better. At first the SEAL candidates present a united front against her. Then a black soldier (Morris Chestnut) warms to Jordan by recalling how it once was believed that "Negroes can't fight at night." Although Jordan hangs on, a stream of he-man candidates drop out. The guys don't like it when she moves into their barracks, but they gain respect for her during war games when she kicks Urgayle in the cojones. She joins them afterward -- bloodied but unbowed -- for a game of pool. Even Urgayle, who claimed he was battering Jordan for her own good -- to drive her from the SEALs and save her life -- flashes her a smile. Are you ready to rumble or what? Next up, Jordan takes on Xena: Warrior Princess.

G.I. Jane is the kind of war movie that gets made when we're not at war. In the absence of any conflict from without, we've got conflict from within. But, just as in Top Gun, it won't do to make a film about soldiers where all the battles are exercises. So G.I. Jane throws in a big number at the end when a battle-readiness submarine operation in the Mediterranean turns into the real thing, and before you know it Jordan is doing her Bronze Star best in Libya. This entire elaborate sequence, staged with an ear-thumping brio to rival Apocalypse Now, is in the movie just so we know Jordan won't wimp out when the bullets are real.

It's typical of this movie's approach to character that, with the exception of Urgayle, none of the male SEAL candidates or officers is recognizable from one scene to the next. They're a blur of interchangeable faces, male and monolithic. Jordan is pretty monolithic too: The entire film is resolutely grim and committed to the notion that Jordan must never reveal a smidgen of tenderness. In rejecting preferential treatment, didn't she feel even a twinge of hesitancy -- or excitement -- when moving into the men's quarters? Jordan claims she doesn't want to be a symbol or a role model, but clearly she covets her position. Why else allow herself to be inducted and endure all that brutality?

It could be that Demi Moore clicks into this role for the same reason Jordan endures all that punishment: She wants the world to know she's not a quitter. She's been in three large flops in a row: The Juror, Striptease and The Scarlet Letter. Worse, she's been pretty awful in most of them. She seems to be that rarity: an actress without a grain of humor. Did the people who made Striptease -- ostensibly a comedy -- check out her other films? In The Scarlet Letter, Moore's attempt to be a "classic" actress wasn't even an honest one. How could it be when she managed to work in a candle-lit bathing-in-the-nude scene that looked like a pictorial for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Swimsuit Issue?

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