The General’s Daughter

Of the many questions swirling through my head after seeing The General’s Daughter, a lurid and ludicrous new thriller, one question in particular stands out: Do the filmmakers think we’re morons? We’re certainly treated as such, right from the beginning. A military officer (John Travolta) is called to investigate the murder of a young female captain. When he sees her face, he recognizes her — and we do, too, because we’ve just seen him share two scenes with her. Yet the movie gives us a fleeting image of her from one of those scenes, as if we needed the reminder. Also, who else would we think it is? At this point, she’s the only woman we’ve seen.

The movie doesn’t trust us to make that connection, and it also thinks we’re too dumb to make other connections that undermine the plot. The General’s Daughter, based on a Nelson DeMille bestseller, never makes any sense. The characters (aside from Travolta’s hero) exist only as red herrings. The young woman is found dead, naked, and bound spread-eagled in the middle of an army complex. Who put her there? Who killed her? Our natural desire to know gives the movie’s first half a slight interest. But as the explanations pour in, like buckets of water drenching a mound of dirt, they just muddy the plot rather than clearing it up.

The young woman, as we might have guessed from the title, was the daughter of the army base general (James Cromwell). She also, apparently, had some rather colorful hobbies off duty, involving whips and chains. All this, and she’s an expert in psychological warfare, too. The movie itself engages in psych warfare, flashing us with ugly images of the woman’s past traumas, as if to explain both her kinks and her violent end, and as if she meant anything other than being a dead naked chick to titillate multiplex audiences.

Travolta is joined by a rape investigator, Madeline Stowe, who tries to keep her dignity despite having very little to do. She and Travolta often engage in the sort of verbal ping-pong cherished so much by co-scripter William Goldman, who never met a zinger he didn’t like. Mostly, the snappy patter produces not laughter but impatience. Goldman does, however, write a deft scene between Travolta and James Woods, as the deceased’s “mentor.” Woods, amusing himself by batting his dialogue around as a cat toys with a mouse, is easily the best thing in the movie¹; he’s also not around for long, but the film unwisely goes on without him.

Indeed, The General’s Daughter continues to bore and insult us; the director, Simon West (Con Air), obviously thinks he’s still working for Jerry Bruckheimer, and we get an early action scene — involving Travolta, an angry soldier, and a boat propeller — that seems to be tossed in so as not to lose us dummies in the audience. There is also an allegedly nail-biting climax in a mine field, which ends the only way such a formulaic thriller can end: the bad guy gets blown sky-high. Whoopee! Those who go to this movie expecting a serious military thriller had better be in the mood to laugh bitterly at their own expense.

The bitterest laugh comes at the very end, when a card informs us that “200,000 women are in the military.” Well, what does that mean, given what we’ve just seen? Is the movie saying that atrocities perpetrated on female soldiers by male soldiers should be covered up so that women can continue to be allowed into the military? Or that women shouldn’t be allowed into the military because things like this might happen? None of this, of course, matters a damn, since the dead woman is meant only as a corpse to animate a contrived whodunit. That important-sounding card at the end is the final insult to our intelligence, and the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

¹To this day I enjoy quoting Woods’ line “What a truly excellent question.”

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