Avoid an introduction to this nasty 'Daughter'

Review: Travolta and Stowe are fine, but the film's cheap and exploitative.

June 18, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

"The General's Daughter" has some very good parts. The problem is that the sum of those parts is a nasty, altogether unsatisfying movie that leaves a sour aftertaste of moral corruption once the final credits roll. What starts out looking like a pretty good thriller winds up being not only decidedly unthrilling, but exploitative and hypocritical in the bargain.

The setup looks promising: Warrant officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) has been assigned by the Army Criminal Investigations Division to look into some backdoor arms dealing at Fort MacCallum, a swampy Georgia base run by the revered Gen. "Fighting Joe" Campbell (James Cromwell). Brenner is sweating it out on an oily houseboat when he meets the lovely Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), a captain in the psychological operations division. But no sooner has he begun wooing her with a basket of bath products than Elisabeth turns up dead and Paul is called in to investigate.

So what are the good parts? Travolta, for one. A bit chunky in the silhouette and with a molasses-thick drawl, he seems to be stuck in his Bill Clinton imitation from "Primary Colors." But he swaggers through "The General's Daughter" (based on a novel by Nelson DeMille) with his dancer's grace, and he unfurls DeMille's bon mots with a contagious relish.

Madeleine Stowe is good, too, as Sarah Sunhill, Brenner's fellow CID investigator and former main squeeze. James Woods, as an Army colonel in psychological operations, is a bit wild-eyed to play a career officer, but he's enormous fun to watch with Travolta. And cinephiles will enjoy a cameo appearance by director John Frankenheimer, who plays an Army colonel with gruff panache.

Simon West, best known for the egregious "Con Air," has brought DeMille's novel to the screen with surprising style and visual sophistication, and he has enlisted Carter Burwell ("Fargo") to compose a wonderfully swampy, slippery musical score to add to the humidity of the film's Deep South atmosphere. Fans of DeMille will be gratified that the author's vinegary sense of humor permeates the proceedings with creatively profane consistency.

But as much as film-goers may enjoy these elements of "The General's Daughter," the film its entirety winds up being rather empty and ultimately quite troubling. On a purely pedestrian level, the mystery isn't terribly satisfying; most of the people who look like bad guys wind up being bad guys, and even the reversals from bad to good are easy to spot. (Note to James Cromwell: Maybe it's time to revisit the pig-farmer role.) But on a deeper level, "The General's Daughter" is much more objectionable, from a cynical use of rape as a convenient narrative device to its use of nymphomania, sadism and brutal murders to add interest that is otherwise lacking.

Taking a page from thrillers such as "Presumed Innocent" and, more recently, "8 Millimeter," the movie injects a titillating whiff of transgressive sex midway through the proceedings, and it plays up the sexual angle throughout, coming back to Elisabeth's nude, spread-eagled body in fetishistic close-ups and computer-screen graphics again and again.

By the final sequence, in which the audience is asked to believe one of the most offensive and preposterous plot "twists" ever conceived, "The General's Daughter" has descended into the seriously sordid territory it pretends to portray. What's more, the filmmakers have the nerve to add a postscript suggesting that "The General's Daughter" has been a spirited defense of women in the military.

It may come as a shock to the very noble men who made this movie, but what they have created is a cheap, sexist, hypocritical piece of exploitation. Conduct very unbecoming, indeed.

`The General's Daughter'

Starring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton

Directed by Simon West

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (graphic images relating to sexual violence including a strong rape scene, some perverse sexuality, nudity and language)

Running time: 118 minutes

Sun score: *1/2

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