The General’s Daughter is almost a triumph of style and film making skills over a fundamentally weak screenplay. The film spans both the military and the police procedural genres, the former setting up the authority structure and power figures ripe to be challenged, the latter a well established vehicle for generating suspense through the unraveling of elusive truth, until we are surprised by whodunit.
Set on an army base in hot and humid Georgia, warrant officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is an undercover investigator from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, working on a case involving illegal arms sales. As he sniffs the trail of the culprits, he is somehow found out (we never know how), a plot device here used principally to provide a violent fight scene whose conclusion you may choose to look away from. What has been established is that Brenner is smart, confident, clever, and one hell of a fighter. Travolta takes charge of the movie, pours on the charm, and almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.
This initial episode segues immediately into the real story: the daughter of the admired general commanding the post, herself an officer assigned there, is found in the middle of a training field, spread-eagled and tied down to stakes in the ground, nude, and murdered. Fortunately, our boy Travolta is there to take charge of the investigation, and a good thing, too, since every piece of evidence that he uncovers is like another rock uncovered, with maggots of decadence and betrayal scurrying for ever darker corners of immorality.
The dialogue is snappy, the score by Carter Burwell (who has scored four or five films a year for a decade) nicely underlines the action, and production designer Dennis Washington (The Fugitive) has created a stylish look to the film, using a lot of saturated colors and sharp lighting contrasts that help establish an appropriately melodramatic mood.
What goes wrong? The pieces of the puzzle all seem to be in place for one terrific entertainment, but something just peters out in the last third of the movie. We’ve been nicely lured into the step-by-step uncovering of evidence. We’ve seen enough of the heavy handed power plays by the ranking officers to resent their behavior and root for their downfall, for justice to be done -Travolta the plebeian, a mere warrant officer against the West Point aristocrats.
But (trying to avoid spoilers) the facts around the events on the night of the murder itself end up seeming highly contrived and extremely far fetched, the past history uncovered (and the real culprit) comes as no great surprise, and the script stretches for ever more shocking ways to maintain momentum, whether kinky sex or escalating violence. And, aside from Travolta, good as the other performances are, the characters are never fleshed out, remaining cookie cutter, two dimensional stock roles.
James Cromwell is reasonably convincing as the general when the script doesn’t let him down. Madeleine Stowe is a delight, but she’s given too little to do here. The same could be said of always first rate James Woods.
With all the experienced talent involved in the film, one can’t help but to notice that it is a first-time screenplay (by Christopher Bertolini, along with Nelson DeMille who wrote the novel). Good, quippy dialogue can’t make up for a fundamentally flawed script, even with Simon West’s well paced direction to keep things moving along.