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The General's Daughter

Review by David Luty
Posted 18 June 1999

  Directed by Simon West

Starring John Travolta,
Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell,
Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III,
James Woods, Rick Dial, Pablo Espinosa,
John Frankenheimer, Boyd Kestner,
Leslie Stefanson, and Peter Weireter

Written by Nelsen DeMille
and Christopher Bertolini

Even though there's only one scene where characters creep around nervously trying to avoid hidden land mines, the actors in the goofy murder mystery thriller The General's Daughter behave with that same stiff uneasiness throughout the duration. That's a particularly surprising disappointment when your lead is played by John Travolta, who can be a such a comfortable, engaging presence. Here, playing Army investigator Paul Brenner, who works to uncover the truth behind the apparent rape and murder of the titular female Army officer, his every movement indicates a desire to be somewhere else. That may be because the script by Christopher Bertolini and veteran William Goldman moves so uneasily itself, between over-baked drama, silly action, sexual sordidness, and sarcastic humor. Or it may be because the vapid dialogue has more cliches per minute than a commercial jingle. Or maybe because the director has done nothing but work on commercials and one previous sarcastically-minded action fiesta. Or maybe Travolta is just slumming. Whatever the case, he and his costars appear very much lost at sea, and by the time the film's plot runs its course, that seems as good a place for them as any.

The most likely reason for Travolta's awkwardness is that there just isn't all that much for him to do. Since absolutely nothing is at stake for Paul Brenner in his investigation of the murder, The General's Daughter has all the dramatic weight of an episode of Murder, She Wrote, or an Agatha Christie novel, where the energy is dedicated not towards an emotional exploration of the investigator, but the satisfying revelation of the killer's identity. What's irksome about The General's Daughter is that it doesn't invest much energy there either. Besides the fact that none of the numerous suspects are particularly interesting, the final revealing light bulb that pops up over Brenner's head isn't provoked or justified by anything but the need to (graciously) end the film, and the revelation itself is as head-scratchingly arbitrary as possible. So what does The General's Daughter care about? Oddly enough, political statements, spelled out for us in postscripts regarding the importance of giving equal opportunity to women in the military and to remind us that rape victims need love and care. But therein lies the heart of the film's problem - frivolous entertainment is the overriding agenda, not substance. It's hard to get both, and this attempt, like most, delivers neither.

The mystery plot that overwhelms all other possible concerns combines the sexually charged undercurrents of Presumed Innocent and the military self-investigation of Courage Under Fire or A Few Good Men, but the overriding tone - which doesn't always feel intentional - is closer to the hyped-up jokiness of something like Con Air. Since The General's Daughter has been directed by Simon West, whose last (and first) directorial effort was, in fact, Con Air, that's a pretty cheap and easy comparison to make. But it is not an inaccurate one. It's difficult to take anything seriously here, no matter how serious and sordid the material becomes. For instance, Brenner gets a sidekick, a tough-as-nails rape counselor (Madeleine Stowe) who also happens to be a past love interest. (And it's typical of the film's awkwardly multiplied personality that one of its characters can be labeled as both a rape counselor and a sidekick). Stowe and Travolta throw half-hearted verbal barbs at each other in an attempt at something approximating romantic wit (and as stiff as Travolta is, multiply that times two for Stowe), and it plays as nothing but a gracelessly grafted on attempt at lightness to soften the more unpleasant nature of the storyline. But these paints don't mix well, and the end color isn't pretty. The General's Daughter is one big hedged bet, with West, Bertolini, and Goldman constantly undercutting what the film is trying to accomplish at any given time. When Brenner isn't facing tediously heavy-handed, banal realities about military and political opportunism, he's shoving cardboard bad guys into motorboat propeller blades.

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