The time around the late 1990′s saw a slew of filmmakers who seemed to have been influenced by the filmmaking style of one Michael Bay. In 1998 one such film which had a certain Michael Bay look to it was the crime thriller The General’s Daughter by filmmaker Simon West (fresh off his success from the previous year’s Con-Air). This film adaptation of the Nelson DeMille novel of the same name starred John Travolta when he was still enjoying the second renaissance of his career brought on by his role in Pulp Fiction.
The General’s Daughter was pretty much a crime procedural wrapped around the secretive and insular world of military life. It has Chief Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (played by Travolta) of the Army’s CID investigating what seems to be the apparent rape and murder of a female officer who also happens to be the daughter of the base’s commandant and political-minded general. Brenner’s soon joined by another CID agent, Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), who must now navigate the insular world which makes up the officer ranks of the military. They find suspects cropping up faster than they could handle and the one prime suspect in base psychologist Col. Moore (James Wood in an over-the-top performance) has secrets about the victim that could jeopardize the lives and career of not just most of the officers on the base but the victim’s own father. This set-up and the basic understanding of the plot should make for a great thriller, but the by-the-numbers direction by Simon West and the over-the-top performances by too many of the characters in the film sinks The General’s Daughter before it could soar.
The story in of itself really has nothing to drag down the film. From the beginning the screenplay does a great job in tossing red herrings to keep the true murderer secret until the very end. It’s these red herrings which manages to bring out the ultimate reason as to the death of Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) and how a traumatic event in her past became the one major link which would lead to her death early in the film. It’s how these events were acted out which brings down the script. It’s been said that great performances could raise a mediocre script, but the same could be said for the opposite. Very average to bad performances could drag down a great script.
Travolta’s performance was good enough most of the time. He’s especially good when pouring on the Southern charm to try and gain an advantage over those he’s interacting with, but when he suddenly switches over to tough Army investigator that he goes from just beyond campy to over the line into full-blown camp. The same could be said for pretty much everyone in the film from Stowe’s character who manages to just stand around doing nothing but act as a sort of “gal Friday” for Travolta’s character until the very end when she suddenly becomes a crack investigator to help move the plot along. Clarence Williams III really hams it up as the base general’s right-hand man and one would wonder if he realized he wasn’t actually in a grindhouse or exploitation film when it was time to act.
Despite the performances dragging the film down I must admit that The General’s Daughter was quite watchable and entertaining to a certain level. It’s the film’s inadequacies which also makes it quite a disposable fare that should’ve been more. One wonders how the film would be done today with a different set of actors and a filmmaker who knew the nuances of how to navigate around a thriller. Until the inevitable remake from Hollywood gets greenlit (the way things get remade now it’s bound to happen) it’s this version of The General’s Daughter that’d be on record and it’s a film that has too many bad performances for a great screenplay to overcome. A film that ultimately remains mildly entertaining but forgettable in the end.