The hallmarks of a good mystery are an intriguing setup, and an array of unexpected twists. The General’s Daughter does wonderfully with the former, but stumbles a bit around the twists. They’re unexpected, all right, and there are plenty of them…but they rarely flow logically from the story. The result is a misfire. But, at least, it’s a misfire with a good cast.
Leslie Stefanson plays the title character, Captain Elisabeth Campbell, the daughter of General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell). General Campbell is a very powerful man, who, after his retirement in a few short days, is expected to be a shoo-in for a Vice Presidential slot. However, his plans are thrown into jeopardy when a family tragedy strikes: Elisabeth is discovered, having been raped and murdered on the base.
Enter Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta), a career military man who idolizes the General. Brenner is given a tight deadline to solve the case, otherwise the FBI will be called in, and the general’s reputation will be forever tarnished. Against his will, Brenner is teamed up with an ex-beau, Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), another investigator who specializes in rape cases. The two have a mysterious history that is never explained, and serves simply as a plot device to allow them to bicker cutely throughout the film.
The lengthy list of suspects is intimidating. Could Elisabeth’s superior, Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods), know more than he slyly lets on? What about Col. William Kent (Timothy Hutton), who has a strange habit of being in the right place at just the right time. Then there’s Col. George Fowler (Clarence Williams III), the General’s right hand man. Is the General himself involved? With only thirty-six hours to solve the crime, Brenner and Sunhill have the odds stacked against them.
It is standard operating procedure for this type of film to be stuffed to the gills with red herring after red herring. Naturally, every suspect will have had both motive and opportunity to commit the crimes. At one point, Brenner rattles off a succinct listing of possible motives for murder: “Profit, revenge, jealousy, to conceal a crime, to avoid humiliation and disgrace, or plain old homicidal mania.” At one time or another, nearly all of these motives seem applicable to at least one cast member. A taut mystery would take this fertile ground and grow a ripe and intriguing film. But the mystery of The General’s Daughter simply withers on the vine.
The problem is with the script. To give it credit, there are a few sharp lines of dialogue scattered throughout. However, all too often, characters are forced to act out of character. They do and say things that are completely unexpected, and don’t follow from what we know or learn about them. Their actions have the sole purpose of creating another twist or otherwise lengthening the plot. A few good twists are always welcome, but much more work needed to be done here to make any of these ones believable.
Our attention might stray completely were it not for the sheer magnetism of two of the actors onscreen. The first is John Travolta. (Don’t panic, he soon loses the cheesy Southern accent with which he begins the picture.) Faced with torn loyalties, and an unrelenting yearning for justice, he is able to maintain our interest, even as the rest of the movie encourages us to groan.
But, just as impressive as Travolta, yet in a smaller role, is James Woods. Even though his character suffers from the same lack of realistic behavior as the rest of the cast, he somehow manages to arrest our attention. Would his character do the things he does? Probably not. But Woods’ intensity makes the point moot. We’re willing to watch him do anything, no matter how illogical.
Madeleine Stowe is a good actress, but she is given very little to do here. The aforementioned romantic entanglement is underdeveloped and overused. Stowe has one strong scene, but the remainder of the time she’s either playing second banana to Travolta, or waiting to be put in some sort of distress. In either case, she’s woefully underused.
The General’s Daughter is ultimately disappointing. The talented cast and intriguing setup never can overcome the film’s fatally flawed script.