The General's Daughter (1999)

The General's DaughterStarring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams, Leslie Stefanson.
Written by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman based on the novel by Nelson DeMille.
Directed by Simon West.

Grade:  C+

Review by Dana Knowles.

A movie that practically screams "Hollywood," this murder-mystery/thriller is as slick as sheet-ice and just about as deep. Travolta stars as military investigator Paul Brenner, who is working an undercover arms-deal sting on a Georgia Army base. His investigation coincides with the retirement of legendary General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), who is about to pursue a high-profile political career. Just as Brenner's arms-deal investigation is wrapping up (with some absurdly over-the-top action), a beautiful young female officer is found dead in a training area, naked, bound, raped, and strangled. Brenner is called to the scene, and a new investigation begins. The victim is (of course!) Elisabeth Campbell, the General's daughter. And--by sheer coincidence--Brenner had encountered her the previous evening in a meet-cute moment involving a flat tire. This is just the first of many coincidences to come...because in Hollywood's eyes, it's always a very, very, very small world.

Shortly after arriving at the murder scene, Brenner notes the presence of another beautiful woman (this one still living and breathing), who will be joining him in the investigation. She is Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), who just happened to be in the vicinity when the body was discovered, and just happens to be another Army investigator, and also just happens to be a former lover of Brenner's, though they haven't seen one another in years. There is immediate tension between them, but it's "Hollywood" tension...meant to keep their scenes lively and fun. Unfortunately, the intrusion of these putatively "lively and fun" scenes into the rather grim situation of such a brutal murder is almost offensively incongruous. As we follow their progress in uncovering the troubling secrets that will explain the murder, we are treated to a lackluster Nick-and-Nora-Charles routine from the leads. But what is meant tobe amusing and endearing is merely annoying, and it clashes with the air of gravity that the non-cutesy scenes are striving for. Madeleine Stowe and John Travolta

It would normally be inappropriate to reveal any details of what their investigation uncovers, because the pleasures of movie mysteries are mostly to be found in the audience's involvement in piecing together the clues as they are revealed, and the subsequent speculations that parallel those of the detective on the case. The General's Daughter is a mystery that does not accommodate this process, however. Its mystery is solved with a succession of somewhat unconvincing scenes that almost always end with a lengthy confessional from the witness or suspect being questioned, which then leads the investigators to the next person who will end his/her scene with a lengthy confessional that leads to the next person, and so on. Sherlock Holmes never had it this easy! And it's safe to say that Brenner is no Sherlock Holmes, so it's his good fortune to get such thorough and revealing answers from those he questions. Otherwise the case may never have been solved.

Anyone who's seen a lot of movies should have no trouble figuring out who the killer and/or killers are, but that's not because there are details that begin to add up and point in the correct direction. In fact, the resolution is rather random and mostly unfounded in the body of the if the killer(s) were determined by the screenwriters through a game of eenie-meenie-minie-moe or a casual toss of the I Ching. The viewers' probable ability to solve the mystery stems more from familiarity with narrative conventions than from evidence uncovered in the investigation, making this a rather unsatisfying drama for those of us who see more than three movies a year. In addition, the convoluted explanation for the whys and wherefores leading up to the murder is a muddled mess that rings false on several levels. John Travolta

The cast does mostly serviceable work with characters that are not really fleshed-out. It's no surprise that James Woods gives the sole memorable performance. He's an actor who tends to shine most brightly when placed at the center of mediocrity, and in this case, he is graced with the only role in the film that carries a hint of full-bodied character behind it. His scenes are worth the price of admission, though I'd lean toward bargain matinee prices wherever possible. Travolta and Stowe ride on whatever screen presence they carry in the eyes of the individual viewer, but have precious little chemistry together. Cromwell is saddled with a recognizable type, and hasn't much room to go beyond it.

For the average moviegoer, The General's Daughter will likely be a reasonably entertaining experience, owing to its glossy look and its subject matter. But for the discriminating viewer, its relative emptiness and somewhat jarring mishmash of tones will only reinforce any negative connotation previously attributed to Hollywood filmmaking. Director Simon West (Con Air) never quite decides which movie he wants to make, leaving the audience afloat from scene to scene, wondering whether they're watching a brooding exposé of the personal and professional scandals that may lurk under the crisp uniforms and grand ceremonial sheen of our armed forces, or a glib romantic comedy about the wacky world of Army investigators who love too much. For me, it failed at both by straining to be both...and because there is so little conviction behind either approach. It's the sort of movie that inspires neither vitriol nor admiration, owing to its own indifference to the potential for drama at the center of its story.  At best, it merits a shrug.

Review © June 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© 1999 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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