Logically enough considering its source material, “The General’s Daughter” is the cinematic equivalent of a disposable airplane read, a hokey, kinky military thriller that’s twisty and compelling enough to hook viewers in the mood for a trashy good time. Pic mixes high-minded, “A Few Good Men”-like principles with lurid melodrama in a way that won’t win it many points from critics, and unsavory story details relating to a central rape and murder may turn off some women. But the intriguing mystery, sultry atmosphere, sharp performances and a number of muscular dramatic scenes punch over this John Travolta starrer as a potent summer commercial attraction.
Second feature from “Con Air” helmer Simon West carries with it some telltale traces of the Bruckheimer stable-sweaty bods, military posturing, intimations of aberrant behavior and inclinations toward overheated sadistic violence, for starters. But it also further reveals a real bent for tasty confrontations between powerful characters, an enthusiasm for colorful actors and an ability to milk the most of out scenes, be they legitimate or downright disreputable, suggesting that West could be one of those directors capable of being every bit as good — or bad — as his material.
Right off the bat, in fact, there are small touches that set the film apart from the routine, hyped-up contempo thriller: the use of a haunting, femme-voiced folk tune, “Sea Lion Woman,” to set the mood, and the comic revelation that the Southern hick accent initially used by Travolta’s U.S. Army criminal investigator, which makes one initially fear that the actor still thinks he’s in “Primary Colors,” is just a put-on.
Initially poking around undercover at Fort MacCallum to foil an illicit arms transfer, Travolta’s Paul Brenner is soon enlisted to solve a much more unusual and disturbing crime, the murder on the base of Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an expert in psychological operations who also happened to be the beautiful daughter of retiring General Campbell (James Cromwell), a distinguished figure now being paged into politics.
Prior to the murder — a sordid affair in which the highly self-confident blonde is tied nude, spread-eagle to the ground in the middle of the night in a mock town being used for urban anti-terrorist training — Paul flirts ineffectually with the alluring young woman. Afterwards, he’s teamed by chance with fellow Criminal Investigation Division vet Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), with whom, it is soon revealed, Paul long ago had an affair in Brussels (“We’ll always have Brussels,” he quips to her at one uncomfortable moment in their reunion).
To set the clock ticking in traditional thriller fashion, Paul is told he’s got 36 hours to nail the killer before the FBI moves in, and the scandal goes embarrassingly public. “You’re going to have to decide on this one, Paul,” the grieving father points out. “Are you a policeman or a soldier?” “I’m a soldier, sir,” Paul replies, although it’s far from the truth, as the iconoclastic detective is not about to become his superiors’ lackey and let anyone off the hook.
Virtually his first order of business is to question (in a superbly written and acted scene of delicious one-upsmanship), then arrest Elisabeth’s commanding officer, the disarmingly insightful and manipulative Colonel Moore (James Woods).
By this time, Paul and Sarah have discovered some decidedly freaky facts about Elisabeth’s private life, which seemingly involved the vast majority of the men on the base in some exceedingly compromising videotapes.
“How she died seems to be tied to the way she lived,” Paul observes, and that’s just the beginning of the weird twists and turns that crop up with increasing frequency in Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman’s tart and seamy adaptation of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 novel.
As in many mysteries, good and not so good, everybody here is a possible suspect: Aside from Colonel Moore, who clearly has a lot to hide, there is the base’s Provost Marshall, Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton), who always seems to be popping up in places unexpectedly; Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III), General Campbell’s longtime adjutant whose loyal protectiveness of his mentor is peculiarly fierce; Daddy, himself, whose rank and family tie to the victim put him all too conveniently above suspicion; some former cadets from Elisabeth’s West Point days; and even the son of the nosy local police chief, who was dating the young woman at the time of her death.
Treatment of the story indelicately combines doses of feminist point-making via Elisabeth’s victimhood and borderline salacious delineation of an s&m lifestyle, in roughly equal measure. Some of the violence comes off as rather gratuitously imaginative, notably a scene in which an adversary of Paul’s meets his doom in the blades of a boat’s outboard motor. And the stirring up of ancient history between Paul and Sarah creates little resonance, although it does spark some decent repartee.
On the plus side, however, West moves the investigative engine forward at a hard-charging, but not annoyingly fast, clip. He has taken the yarn seriously enough to play it for conviction, even at its most questionable moments, but has fun with it too, particularly in allowing Travolta to follow his nose for humorous notes.
Playing a man whose nature and years on the job have made him a nearly ideal investigator, resourceful and utterly fearless, Travolta delivers another strong performance that effectively carries the picture.
Given a character of considerable tenacity who must nonetheless struggle to hold her own with such a dynamic partner, Stowe gamely gets off a few shots, but whatever the two characters once meant to one another is only lightly indicated, never felt.
Woods delivers the standout supporting turn as the complicated colonel, with the many other thesps cast, however effectively, more to type.
Production values are excellent. Carter Burwell’s score, which is rounded out by some wonderfully selected folk music, demonstrates how an imaginative artist can make something distinctive, even memorable, out of a potentially routine assignment that most composers would handle with predictable, hard-charging “suspense” music; his approaches to musical backgrounding are always unusual and effective.
Dennis Washington’s production design, Peter Menzies Jr.’s lensing and Georgia locations create a hothouse environment draped in tradition, and Glen Scantlebury’s editing keeps the picture on its toes.