By Stephanie Zacharek
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Simon West, the director of the new thriller starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe, likes the kind of close-ups that bore into an actor's face, exposing every clogged pore and mascara smudge. In The General's Daughter, his camera also tracks in to capture the thick layer of sweat coating the skin of both officer and enlisted man on duty at Fort MacCallum in the remote bogs of coastal Georgia. (The picture was shot in and around Savannah.) Travolta plays Paul Brenner, a detective with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division who is, as the movie opens, in deep undercover as a good-ol'-boy supply sergeant at Fort MacCallum with a thick-as-gravy Southern accent, the stump of a stogie, and a shit-eatin' grin, hot on the trail of an illegal arms transfer. But no sooner is he finished with one job than an even bigger one lands in his lap.
In fact, the biggest of his career. The victim is Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an officer with SyOps, the Army's psychological warfare division. Of perhaps greater importance to Brenner is that the captain is also the daughter of General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), the commanding officer at Fort MacCallum and, according to news reports, a likely national political candidate. As a detective with CID, Brenner is also an officer in the Army, a fact that the general and his fiercely protective assistant, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III), urgently press upon him. He should be reminded in conducting the case, Fowler says, that there are three ways a thing can be done: "The right way. The wrong way. And the Army way."
Because of the special circumstances of the murder, Brenner is joined in the investigation by a rape specialist with CID named Sarah Sunhill (Stowe). From the moment Sunhill comes on board, it becomes clear that she and Brenner are anything but strangers. For the audience, this is a blessing, because the banter between them makes their scenes together the funniest--and the sexiest--in the film.
But Travolta isn't good just in his scenes with Stowe. As Brenner, Travolta may look heavier than usual and rumpled from the humidity, but the actor has seldom been sharper or more focused in his work. Both physically and intellectually, he's a formidable presence. In addition to his scenes with Stowe, he is also at the top of his game in his encounters with James Woods, who plays the late captain's immediate superior in SyOps, and everyone's primary suspect. Their first meeting together, during which the two adversaries size each other up, is a tour de force for both performers, and easily the movie's most electrifying scene.
As Travolta's sidekick, Stowe does her best work in Sunhill's early scenes with Brenner, and is mostly forgotten later on. (Brenner and Sunhill's relationship is dropped, too, as the film progresses.) She is given one vital scene, in the last part of the film, that shows what a smart, sassy actress she can be when given the chance. The rest of the supporting cast--including Timothy Hutton, Williams and Cromwell--give serviceable performances, but they are mostly held in tightlipped check to heighten the possibility that one or the other might be guilty. The one exceptional supporting performance is given by John Beasley, who, as Captain Campbell's psychiatrist during her West Point days, is sensitive and affecting as he fills in some important information from the murdered woman's past.
In general, it's good that the level of the acting in the film is so extraordinarily high, because the further we are drawn into the story, the more preposterous and less satisfying the movie becomes. From the beginning, the filmmakers rely on the lurid sexuality at the heart of the story to create a sense of impending violence. But audiences are more likely to be disgusted and even turned off by this aspect of the film than shocked into a state of foreboding.
Also, West, who comes to filmmaking after a successful advertising career in England, doesn't so much direct his story as hype it with his supercharged technique. (He made his feature debut with Con Air and instantly established himself as School of Tony Scott.) To their credit, he and his creative team--cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. and production designer Dennis Washington--have given the film a beautiful, haunted look, in which the landscape seems almost to be rotting before your very eyes. This, together with Carter Burwell's destabilizing, gutbucket blues score, makes nearly every frame seem eerie and threatening, as if at any moment violence was ready to spring.
Still, neither West nor his actors can disguise the essential thinness of the source material, Nelson DeMille's 1992 best-selling novel. Yes, the picture is engrossing, but not especially because of anything in the story itself, which seems not only far-fetched and arbitrary, but also unfounded psychologically. And, while Paramount has taken special precautions to make sure the ending is not revealed, the twists and turns in the plot are easier than usual to figure out. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes, in other words, to put together "who done it."
The General's Daughter
Directed by Simon West; with John Travolta, James Woods and Madeleine Stowe.
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