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
"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.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman