The General's Daughter Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

What do we have here?
Tortured... raped... and murdered.

John Travolta

When you look past the big-name cast, director Simon West's kinetic camerawork, and the audacious titillation afforded by its voyeuristic plot elements, "The General's Daughter" is your prototypical whodunit suspense-thriller. And while this adaptation of the Nelson DeMille best-seller boasts some decent production values and a few compelling performances, "The General's Daughter" is ultimately sabotaged by an increasingly ludicrous script that almost lampoons the genre that it tries so hard to emulate.

Are you a soldier or a policeman?
A soldier, sir.
Then I'm counting on you.

John Travolta ("Primary Colors" and "The Thin Red Line") plays Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, an undercover officer out to bust an arms-trafficking ring operating out of an army base. While in the midst of his investigation, he has a brief run in with Captain Elizabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), a fetching officer involved in psychological research on the base. Unfortunately, the brief encounter turns out to be the last when Campbell's nude body turns up shortly after. Naturally, Brenner is called in to investigate, and it is then that he learns that the murder victim happens to be the daughter of General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell of "L.A. Confidential"), who is a few days short of retiring and entering the race for a vice presidential candidacy. The General, who wishes to keep things quiet for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, asks Brenner to complete the investigation within 36 hours in order to avoid FBI and news media involvement.

We have three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. See to it that when you're doing things your way, that you don't lose sight of the Army way.

Madeline Stowe and Travolta

To further complicate matters, Brenner winds up being partnered with Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe of "Playing By Heart"), an old girlfriend with whom he has some unresolved issues. Unfortunately, sexual tension is the least of Brenner's worries as the investigation deepens, which reveals some unsettling revelations about Elizabeth Campbell's life. In addition, the investigation points to a number of shady characters that may somehow be involved, including the General's tight-lipped aide (Clarence Williams III of "Life"), the dead woman's mentor (James Woods of "Contact"), and even the General himself.

Perhaps you are aware that condoms are in fashion again due to the threat of disease. Nowadays, you have to boil people in order to sleep with them.

In a well-done whodunit suspense-thriller, the payoff comes from a logical culmination of the investigation and the 'big reveal' of the killer and his or her motivation. In the case of "The General's Daughter", the film's resolution ended up being both anti-climactic and lackluster. It certainly began interestingly enough, exuding plenty of atmosphere and intrigue as the investigation unfolded, buoyed by Simon West's (who directed "Con Air") eye for creating interesting images, as well as some snappy dialogue from legendary screenwriter William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "Marathon Man"), who had a hand in the screenplay. Unfortunately, despite these elements in its favor, this was no "A Few Good Men"-- not even close.

Where were you last night?
I was killing someone else. I didn't have time to kill two people.

One small technical misstep early on served as an indication of the narrative missteps to come-- Campbell helps Brenner change a tire without jacking up the car! As the film progressed, the narrative blunders began to grow larger, until the film's entire premise began to unravel into an ever-rising mountain of cliché contrivances, laughable dialogue, and dubious revelations. The film's characters were clearly delineated between the 'good' and 'evil' camps (hence, no surprises), the plot elements were recycled genre conventions at best (hence, no surprises), and the ludicrously over-dramatic dialogue actually brought some unexpected laughs from the audience.

James Cromwell

Part of the problem is the large number of poorly-developed characters that populate the film. Though Travolta does a remarkable job portraying the film's smart and driven investigator, there are very few clues provided by the script as to why he is so driven. Stowe's character is given even less to work with, relegated to playing the thankless roles of exposition-facilitating sidekick, damsel-in-distress, and easy-on-the-eyes source of sexual tension. Thankfully, Stowe does a decent job with what little she is given to work with, primarily due to her strong screen presence and talent. Interestingly enough, the only well-developed character in the entire film turns out to be the murder victim. In a similar fashion to how Meg Ryan's character was fleshed out in "Courage Under Fire", "The General's Daughter" uses flashbacks and eyewitness accounts to provide backstory and motivation to this central character. The only other performance of note is James Woods, whose character goes toe-to-toe against Travolta's character in a memorable bout of verbal sparring, one of the film's few highlights.

Other than a few interesting performances and some memorable moments, "The General's Daughter" was a disappointing effort that became increasingly absurd as it dragged on. And when the film wasn't being ridiculous, it distastefully exploited the lurid details of its central character's double-life and victimization, providing some audacious titillation in the vein of "8mm". In the case of "The General's Daughter", the crime being portrayed on the screen wasn't the only one being committed.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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