The General's Daughter
Screenplay : Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman (based on the novel by Nelson DeMille)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : John Travolta (Warrant Officer Paul Brenner), Madeleine Stowe (Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill), James Cromwell (Lt. Gen. "Fighting Joe" Campbell), Timothy Hutton (Col. William Kent), Clarence Williams III (Col. Fowler), James Woods (Col. Moore), Leslie Stefanson (Elizabeth Campbell), Rick Dial (Cal Seivers)
In "The General's Daughter," a new anti-military, one-man-versus-the-establishment mystery thriller from director Simon West ("Con Air"), John Travolta plays Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, a cocky military investigator looking into the brutal strangling and apparent rape of the daughter of General "Fighting Joe" Campbell (James Cromwell), a famous Army officer with political aspirations.
The movie promises many things, especially the uncovering of all kinds of kinky activities at the MacCallum Army base in the sultry heat of Georgia. Not since "A Time to Kill" (1995) have so many prominent actors spent two hours glistening with sweat in the humid Southern air. There is no doubt that "The General's Daughter" is a slick piece of work, and its high production values and top-notch performers almost cover up the basic sordidness of the story, which deals with sex murders, gang rape, and whips and chains, none of which is left to the viewer's imagination. The central murder--which involves the general's murdered daughter being found naked and tied spread-eagle on the ground in the middle of the Army base--is almost overbearingly gruesome in both its crime scene presentation and its later recreation in flashback. It doesn't help that the final explanation of how she came to be that way is strained at best.
Based on the best-selling novel by Nelson DeMille and adapted for the screen by first-time scribe Christopher Bertolini and old-pro William Goldman ("Absolute Power," "Misery"), "The General's Daughter" moves along at a steady clip, drawing its audience in with constant assurances of more revealing secrets. The movie is at its best when Travolta is squaring off with Colonel Moore, who is played by James Woods at his smarmy best. Col. Moore has so much guilt written all over his face that you know he can't be the murderer simply because it would be too obvious. Still, his scenes of incisive verbal sparring with Travolta crackle and pop, not only because the dialogue is so well-written, but because the actors deliver it with such aplomb.
The same cannot be said for many other parts of the movie, some of which simply do not belong. Exhibit A is a tired and fundamentally unnecessary subplot that introduces Travolta's character. It involves his going undercover to catch an arms dealer who is buying heavy artillery from the Army. The entire point of this 20-minute waste of celluloid is to show us that (a) Paul Brenner is a military investigator, and (b) he has guts and smarts. This could have been done in much simpler fashion; instead, director West uses it as a cheap excuse to film a superfluous action scene that ends with the unnecessarily violent killing of the arms dealer with the roaring blade of an outboard motor.
Other badly handled scenes involve Brenner's relationship with Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), his co-investigator with whom he once had a relationship. Why? How does their having once been romantically involved add to the story? The fact is, it doesn't; it is merely an excuse for witty wordplay between the two characters, and it is thankfully dropped after the first half of the film (proof positive that it had no real meaning). The only explanation is that it makes up for the fact that Stowe's character doesn't bring much to the table; Travolta's tough-guy attitude is the real show here.
There is also the problem of Brenner's condescending attitude to the local sheriff, a good ol' boy whom Brenner verbally ravages throughout the film for no other reason than the fact that he is a Southern sheriff and therefore an easy target ("Shouldn't you be out nightsticking the colored folk right now?" Travolta jeers at one point). These sequences seem to serve no other purpose than the chance to make fun of a character who has done nothing within the context of the film to deserve such derision; or maybe it's just to show that Travolta's character is a jerk.
The fact is, Brenner is a jerk; an amusing, wisecracking jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. It is interesting that he is intended to represent the conscience of the single man against the bureaucratic, amoral military machine represented by Cromwell's general. The daughter--a beautiful and tragic girl named Elizabeth (Leslie Stefanson) who is the most moving character in the film despite her relatively short screen time--represents the innocent people who get crushed and destroyed without justice because reparations might call into question "the Army way." As General Campbell's right-hand man and staunchest defender, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III), states at one point, "There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way."
Somewhere amidst all the salacious violence and suspense-laden intrigue, the filmmakers try to squeeze in some noble-sounding messages about the role of women and homosexuals in the military. The former has at least some merit in the story; the latter feels utterly contrived and silly, and comes off as more of a carefully placed plot point than a moral imperative. "The General's Daughter" certainly works as an involving murder-mystery; it only sags when it tries to be something more.
©1999 James Kendrick