Friday June 18, 1999
Like a sinking fly ball that converging outfielders can't quite reach, "The General's Daughter" is what baseball announcers call a 'tweener. A middling, so-so thriller about a murder investigation on an Army base, it falls to Earth somewhere between failure and success, inconclusive to the end.
"The General's Daughter" stars John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe as the team doing the investigating and is based on a novel by best-selling author Nelson DeMille. Getting that book screen-ready was apparently not easy; two writers get actual credit (Christopher Bertolini and the veteran William Goldman), and press reports claim that a total of six were employed.
No matter who is responsible, the film's script is the nub of a problem. In the best whodunits, crackling direction and crisp acting combine to pull reluctant audiences over inevitable bumps in the exposition. Convoluted and occasionally far-fetched though it is, "General's" story line is salvageable, but it needs help from the rest of the talent if it's going to make the leap to plausibility--help that it doesn't get.
Simon West, an award-winning commercial director whose debut feature was the over-adrenalized "Con Air," apparently relished the chance to do something different, something in which words mattered more than the explosions. But even in a film like this, West's strength remains the visual.
"General's Daughter" is set in the vicinity of Ft. MacCallum, a fictitious Southern military base, and West and cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. do such an effective job with the atmosphere that you can almost smell the swamp gas. And the credit sequence that introduces key character Gen. "Fighting Joe" Campbell (James Cromwell) is one of several that are smartly put together.
Army Criminal Investigations Division officer Paul Brenner (Travolta) has a soft spot in his heart for the fighting general, but Brenner's presence at Ft. MacCallum doesn't initially involve the great man, who is retiring from the Army and under consideration for a vice presidential nomination.
Similarly, when Brenner meets Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) who offers to change his tire, he doesn't connect her to the general. But once the captain is found dead on the base and the initial reports indicate torture and rape as well as murder, he understands soon enough just whose daughter she is.
This is such a big case that, at the strong urging of Col. William Kent (Timothy Hutton), the fort's provost marshal, Brenner is forced to work with another CID officer, rape investigator Sarah Sunhill (Stowe), a feisty operative who, as it happens, had a romantic fling with Brenner some time in the past.
Though the general asks Brenner as a good soldier to clear the case up in 36 hours--the better to keep the meddling FBI and the intrusive media out of the picture--the case soon becomes so complicated that it can barely be even understood in 36 hours.
Also, the deeper Brenner and Sunhill get into their work, the more threatening what they find becomes to people on and off the base. And Brenner's iconoclastic manner, likely to provoke an outraged, "Who the hell do you think you are?" from those he questions, doesn't make things any easier.
Though we're inevitably curious about the identity of the murderer, seeing the investigation unfold on screen is less than compelling. West's visuals are effective, but there are a flatness and lack of subtlety in his direction of dialogue that make sequences irritating when they should be involving. Brenner's rivalry with the local sheriff, for instance, is so ponderous and pointless that it's hard to know why it's in the picture.
The film's acting also has a tendency to be unconvincing. The reliable Stowe is invariably solid, but Travolta never fully recovers from being forced to spend the film's first half hour as an undercover agent with a phony Southern accent that wouldn't fool Gomer Pyle.
Travolta's least tenable moments come in his verbal duel with Col. Robert Moore (James Woods), the dead woman's mentor at the base's psychological operations unit. Their dialogue is meant to be a display of sharp repartee, but the interchanges are listless and dispassionate, consistently off rather than on the beat.
Just as troubling is the graphic sexual violence toward women that is a key feature of "General's Daughter." Though the filmmakers probably feel they've been discreet and low-key in dealing with what is doubtless an important element in DeMille's novel, excessive shots of spread-eagled, tortured and raped victims are hard to stomach and in no way help this dramatically impoverished film gain the credibility it certainly needs.
The General's Daughter, 1999. R for graphic images relating to sexual violence, including a strong rape scene, pervasive sexuality, nudity and language. A Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme production, a Jonathan D. Krane production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Simon West. Producer Mace Neufeld. Executive producer Jonathan D. Krane. Screenplay by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, based on the novel by Nelson DeMille. Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. Editor Glen Scantlebury. Costumes Erica Edell Phillips. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Dennis Washington. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. John Travolta as Paul Brenner. Madeleine Stowe as Sarah Sunhill. James Cromwell as Gen. Joe Campbell. Timothy Hutton as Col. William Kent. Clarence Williams III as Col. George Fowler. James Woods as Col. Robert Moore. Leslie Stefanson as Capt. Elisabeth Campbell.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times