Grabbing an electric barbershop razor, Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore), the first woman in history allowed to train with the elite Navy SEALs, casts a doleful look forward. As Chrissie Hynde wails in rapture on the soundtrack, Jordan puts razor to head and begins to shave, her dark locks cascading to the floor, her skull gleaming under a layer of microstubble. She emerges, reborn, as…what? Joan of Arc? Sinead O’Connor? Call her Saint Jordan of Basic Training.

Jordan, the iron-willed heroine of G.I. Jane (Hollywood), must prove she’s worthy of being a Navy SEAL if others are to tread in her path. The future of women in the military is riding on her shoulders. Her commanding officers have insisted on giving her special treatment, placing her, in small ways, on a pedestal (which is really a way of putting her down). For Jordan, shaving off her hair is a way of demanding to be treated as a soldier, not a woman. Yet the buzz cut carries another, unmistakable layer of symbolism: It’s Demi Moore shearing herself of vanity. In recent years, we’ve seen her stripped, buffed, martyred by a scarlet letter and a fickle, derisive public. In G.I. Jane, Moore seems to be saying: You want me without frills? Without protection? Well, here I am.

Of course, she still has plenty of protection. G.I. Jane, directed by Ridley Scott, is a grimly inspirational basic-training epic that glorifies the new power of women. Recruited as a high-profile test case by a feisty U.S. senator (Anne Bancroft), Jordan undergoes the grueling rituals of the Navy SEALs, a torturous regimen that, if the film is to be believed, makes the infamous basic training of the Marines look like a round of patty-cake. Along with the male recruits, Jordan does push-ups in the ice-cold surf, crawls through torrents of mud, eats food out of the garbage, gets punched, kicked, and shot at, and then, when she’s past the point of exhaustion, is put through a dozen new varieties of torture. She also, naturally, engages in a mind war with her drill sergeant, the command master chief (Viggo Mortensen), who, for some reason, looks like a disco lizard from 1979.

Living through this sadomasochistic endurance test, the audience may well wonder not just if a woman could take all this but why, exactly, she’d want to. With its vicarious revel in no-pain-no-gain feminist machismo, G.I. Jane makes heroism look — literally — like hell. Yet that, in a way, is its message. The film says that if women and men are to be truly equal, they must embrace the outer limits of physical will in the exact same way. G.I. Jane has a timely topic, which it treats with more than a touch of wish fulfillment. Then again, so has every male basic-training movie ever made.

Were women put on earth to be warriors? Demi Moore certainly was. She’ll never be a great actress, or even a great presence, but the role of Jordan O’Neil fits her as snugly as a new layer of muscle. G.I. Jane could almost be a paradigm of modern movie stardom: Moore, as Jordan, doesn’t have much of a character to play, but oh, does she strive for success! We’re right in there with Demi, in the mud and the rain (since this is a Ridley Scott picture, there’s lots of rain), watching her grow strong.

I wish G.I. Jane were more fun. The movie is as dogged as its heroine, and the conspiratorial threats to Jordan’s victory — she is ridiculed, sabotaged, framed as a ”lesbian” by mysterious higher-ups — come across as standard-issue dramatic booby traps. At the end, Scott stages a ludicrous (and chaotically edited) military skirmish in Libya, the sole purpose of which is to prove that women can — and should — go into combat. It’s pure propaganda. And yet there’s no denying that G.I. Jane pumps up a powerful new myth of Olympian feminine resilience. Let’s hope that women don’t start killing themselves to live up to it. B-

G.I. Jane
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