The General's Daughter (1999)
Directed by Simon West
Cast: John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Boyd Kestner.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for violence, nudity, profanity, and a strong scene of rape).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 20, 1999.
Director Simon West's "The General's Daughter," based on a popular novel by Nelson DeMille, is an absorbing crime investigation drama, albeit one with some unexpected dialogue zingers. West, who last made one of 1997's most insultingly bad action movies, "Con Air," has greatly improved with this effort, but the film still cannot completely dissolve a heavy feeling of deja vu that hangs over the proceedings.
Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a top investigator at the Army Criminal Investigation Division, currently going undercover as a military warrant officer in Georgia to arrest a criminal, complete with a thick southern accent. After almost getting himself filled with bullets from the suspect, he kills him in self-defense and thinks his work is done there. But not so fast, since at the same exact time this fight was going on, highly respected Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), whom Brenner met twice before, was found on the military grounds, spread-eagle naked and strangled to death. Brenner is assigned the case, but only has 36 hours before the police step in, and is partnered with rape investigator and ex-girlfriend Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe). Things get decidedly seedier when Brenner and Sunhill find a secret room in the basement of Campbell's home that includes S&M tools and home-made porno tapes, and her mentor, Colonel Moore (James Woods), is immediately suspected of having something to do with her death, which Moore himself does not deny.
One of the key comments, and criticisms, that has been made thus far about "The General's Daughter" is that a particular rape sequence is gratuitous and needlessly exploitive. I don't think so; like last spring's underrated "8mm," which was even more graphic, the film takes a serious, unflinching look at the subject at hand--a rape and a murder, and its purpose, in no way, is to excite or titillate. Whoever may get off at the monstrosity that is presented here is nothing but a sick, unstable person. Kudos, at least, to director West for being serious-minded when the material calls for it.
The downfall that results from "The General's Daughter" is in the basic story arc; there have been so many films concerning a crime investigation that it is long since grown tiresome if not done with a visual or invigorating flare. The questionable murderer that is, indeed, involved in Campbell's death is fairly easy to pinpoint--it's the only central cast member that doesn't really have any other purpose. However, a surprise revelation that comes in the second half leads to several thought-provoking ideas, and an exceptional scene near the end between Brenner and Campbell's stern General father (James Cromwell), in which Travolta and Cromwell get to delightfully play off of one another and prove their true acting colors.
The relationship between Brenner and Sunhill is one of the film's finer points, subtle and light, but also consistently pleasurable. Unfortunately, their past failed romance is obviously only created to give Brenner some much-needed character development, and somewhat comes off as contrived. Still, due to the snappy screenplay, by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, it is this subplot and several other sequences that are brought instantly to life. Aided by Madeleine Stowe's superb performance, she and Travolta are given a lot of chances for some witty dialogue exchanges.
A second standout is James Woods, who hasn't made much of an impression on me lately (save for, perhaps, "Another Day in Paradise"), but is back in top form. Even when his innocence is seriously questioned, his character of Colonel Moore remains three-dimensional and even likable, as we somehow can relate to his kinship with the late Campbell, whom he clearly loved and respected.
"The General's Daughter" may follow a familiar pattern that we've seen before, and there's no denying its many flaws (including a few noticable plot holes), but the film is never boring. In her brief scenes as the tragic Campbell, Leslie Stefanson brings a fortuitous humanity to her role, and we can gradually sympathize with her, particularly when her secretive background is revealed. Convoluted as some of the developments may be, the movie never loses its interest or atmosphere within the swampy, backwater Georgia town, and as summer popcorn-fare, it is unusually intelligent.
©1999 by Dustin Putman