Watching John Travolta ease into a role is always a pleasure, but this film version of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 best-selling mystery novel is a lurid mess, a Southern gumbo simmering in Gothic cliche. Travolta plays Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, the Army’s pointman in solving the kinky murder of Capt. Elizabeth Campbell (the gorgeous Leslie Stefanson).
It’s not fittin’ that the daughter of Gen. Joe Campbell (James Cromwell) — Fighting Joe is considering a run for vice president — should be found stripped, spread-eagled and strangled in the middle of a training field on her old man’s command post. No rape is involved, although Paul finds whips, leather and the latest in bondage toys tucked away in the captain’s basement. “You have to boil people now before you can sleep with them,” quips Travolta’s snoop.
Six screenwriters were reportedly involved in adapting DeMille’s novel, but only two earn credit: newcomer Christopher Bertolini and Oscar-winning veteran William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Without knowing who wrote the fun stuff — I suspect Goldman — let me go on record saying I’m grateful for it.
The General’s Daughter is severe heavy going as the usual suspects line up for inspection. There’s the thin-lipped general himself, who seems to be keeping secrets about his daughter’s sexual past. Next up come the general’s adjutant, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III at his creepiest); the base provost marshal Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton, also creepy); the commanding officer of psychological operations, Colonel Moore (James Woods at his Woodsiest); and Colonel Sanders (OK, I made that one up).
These actors are all set adrift by British director Simon West, whose debut with Con Air (an inexplicable box-office hit) qualifies him for at least the rank of colonel in the army of hack directors from the advertising world — did anybody say Michael Bay (Armageddon)? — who continue working in features without a lick of talent for the game.
That leaves Travolta and Madeleine Stowe, as fellow investigator Sara Sunhill, to keep us attractively distracted as the movie dissolves into deep-fried Freudian melodrama. Paul and Sara are even given an absurd romantic back story that is nonetheless preferable to the S&M nonsense in the foreground. You have to boil down movies now before you can sleep through them.