Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The General's Daughter

By Russell Smith

JUNE 28, 1999: 

D: Simon West; with John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, Richard Cromwell, James Woods, Leslie Stefanson, Clarence Williams III. (R, 120 min.)

About this time every year, Hollywood invites us to watch as the military's dress-white cloak of honor and rectitude is ripped asunder, exposing -- gasp! -- unspeakable secrets lurking beneath that immaculate surface. (Jeez, after A Few Good Men, Courage Under Fire, A Soldier's Story, and countless other films of this type, shouldn't they just put Velcro on the damn cloak to ease the sundering process? I mean, it's not like there's any suspense left to milk ... ) If you're a completist about these things, you'll be happy to hear that, while The General's Daughter isn't quite up to the standard of the movies I just named, it at least does a workmanlike job of extending the tradition. Every convention is honored, starting with the protagonist, a working-stiff military cop named Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (the increasingly oviform Travolta), whose murder investigation sends him down a darkening path of deceit and duplicity leading, as ever, all the way to the top. Since our decedent is both an officer and the daughter of a beloved general (Cromwell) with political hopes, Brenner is pressured to wrap things up quickly in order to keep the FBI and the jackals of the civilian news media at bay. And because the victim, Capt. Elizabeth Campbell (Stefanson), was gorgeous and gifted, she's subject to the ironclad movie law (I call it the Prima Donna/Whore Principle) requiring all brilliant, attractive women with a touch of swagger about them to have freaky-deaky sexual tastes. None of the ensuing plot turns are any more surprising than this setup. There's never a slack or static moment, though, and the cast is superb. Travolta and Stowe (as his partner/ex-girlfriend) mesh smoothly and likably, though Stowe really has just one featured scene. Woods, again the scene-stealer, is savory as a wily Army psychologist who engages Brenner in enjoyably barbed adversarial banter. West also shows more creativity than most of his predecessors within the strictly codified boundaries of this genre, particularly impressing with his flair for intensifying his narrative with repeating images of almost fetishistic power. This last point brings me to what I consider a much more serious flaw in this film than its unoriginality: its bizarre disjunction between the story unfolding through the characters' words and actions and the one West tells with his camera. Overtly, The General's Daughter argues that men's screwed-up, hypocritical attitudes about sex are to blame for restricting women's horizons and poisoning their sexual psyches. On the other hand, almost every withering attack on said hypocrisy is undercut by a gratuitous, lingering image of Elizabeth's luscious naked bod spread-eagled helplessly on the ground or writhing beneath a faceless, implacable rapist. Bondage porn for self-loathing pervs, you might say. Like the "classy" men's stroke magazines of the Sixties, The General's Daughter inspires all kinds of cognizant dissonance with its blend of high-mindedness and cheesy titillation. Very odd, and very icky. Highly recommended for graduate psychology students in aberrant sexuality, but others can probably skip sans regret.

2.0 stars

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