The General’s Daughter

As a film, “The General’s Daughter” is as conflicted as its characters.
At first glance, the film looks like another one of those John Grisham Southern thrillers. It’s images are soaked in a golden honey hue, and you can literally feel the humidity and smell the sweat that permeates each and every scene.

The General?s Daughter. Generally Speaking, Daughter Is A DudUnfortunately, it is all a veneer. Go beyond the pretty pictures and you’ll find a thriller that isn’t very compelling. Based on Nelson DeMille’s popular page turner, “The General’s Daughter” features a screenplay by William Goldman and Christopher Bertolini that is more of a mystery than the plot.

The screenwriter’s never trust the material, feeling the need to insult the audience by grabbing them by the shirt collars and escorting them through the mystery. These guys may not have invented the telegraph, but they sure perfect it. There are no subtle hints in this murder mystery. Anyone familiar with the trappings of a good mystery will be light years ahead of the characters.

Director Simon West, a former music video virtuoso who made his big screen debut with the kinetic “Con Air,” fails to light a fire under the proceedings. He has no problem moving the plot mechanics forward, but he does so at such a leisurely pace you could finish reading the book before the film is over.

Perhaps this is West answering the critics who complained that “Con Air” was too erratic and noisy. Unfortunately, it is the wrong answer, because if any film called for an erratic pace, it is “The General’s Daughter.”

It’s supposed to be a military thriller, but lacks the discipline and suspense. The desire to be another “A Few Good Men” or “Lords of Discipline” is there, but West never manages to connect with it. A good mystery should draw you in so you become part of the action. Instead, the filmmaker’s seem intent with the audience being nothing more than voyeurs, and that is the film’s downfall.

Despite some engaging characters, “The General’s Daughter” is tough to sit through. It deals with a the murder of a female Army officer, and the Army investigator assigned to find the killer. The attack on the female officer is pivotal to the plot, but is delivered in such a fashion that you feel dirty watching it. Rape is supposed to be ugly but never exploitive, yet West seems comfortable subjecting us to not one but two such attacks.

The subject of these attacks is Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson, whom we get to see naked more often than her gynecologist), the bright daughter of base commander General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell with more shades than Lamps Plus).

When Elisabeth’s body is found stripped naked and tied up on the base (one of those grand and glorious Southern bases where you can see the humidity peer down through the trees), Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta, still looking as little puffy from his “Primary Colors” shoot) is called in by friend and provost marshal Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton) to investigate.

Brenner is teamed up with rape investigator and former paramour Sarah Sunhill (an uncredited Madeleine Stowe), and vows to the General that he will find the “son-of-a-bitch” who killed his daughter.

Like all decent murder mysteries (excluding O.J. Simpson), there is no shortage of suspects. There’s Captain Moore (James Woods), Elisabeth’s mentor and friend, whose relationship with the victim is dubious at best. The film’s high point is a clever and heated exchange between Brenner and Moore that bristles with wit and energy. You wish the rest of the film was this exciting and engaging.

When Brenner and Sunhill search Elisabeth’s house, they learn that she was as by-the-book Army as they come. Then they discover a secret room in the basement filled with all sorts of Sadomasochistic toys and devices, plus a cabinet filled with home videos even more disturbing than a Marilyn Manson physical exam.

It seems that Elisabeth, an expert in psychological warfare, served as the Army’s official welcome mat, taking on each and every member of her father’s trusted staff. I’ve heard that the Army has an open door policy, but this is ridiculous.

As their list of suspects grow, so does resistance from the enlisted men, who see Brenner and Sunhill as outsiders meddling in affairs that don’t concern them. There’s enough red herrings in “The General’s Daughter” to start an aquarium, yet the director and the writers make little effort to actually conceal the identity of the real killer. If you haven’t pegged the bad guy within the first thirty minutes then you are either brain dead or stepped out for popcorn.

The cast is fine, especially Travolta (once he gets past that dreadful southern accent at the beginning). Unfortunately, they are trapped in a film that never seems to gel.

West has made a film that is gorgeous to look at (thanks to the amber drenched images of cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr.), but is ultimately unsatisfying. The look and tone are all wrong for the material. Instead of shading the characters, West shades each scene to the point of shooting in complete darkness. This isn’t film noir, but try telling that to West.

The best thing about “The General’s Daughter” is Carter Burwell’s catchy musical score, which made me want to go out and buy the CD.

I didn’t read the novel by DeMille, but it must have been a real page turner. In the film version, you just wish everyone would get on the same page.

John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Daniel Van Bargen, Leslie Stefanson in a film directed by Simon West. Rated R. 118 Minutes.

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