The pedigree for the new military mystery "The General's Daughter" would seem to be less than promising. First, it is based on what is generally considered to be the weakest work of top-knotch thriller writer Nelson DeMille.
Second, Simon West, director of the bombastically awful comic book style aciton pic, "Con Air," would seem to be an unlikely choice to helm a complex psychological mystery.
Surprisingly, however, "The General's Daughter" is a mostly smart, well acted, and very well paced and atmospheric thriller, that unlike most summer offerings of its type, rarely insults the intelligence of its viewers. John Travolta plays John Brennan, an Army CID investigator who is on an Army base undercover to bust an illegal arms deal. While he is there, he gets a murder case that is as hot as the Southern summer weather - the daughter of a national hero, General Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell of "Babe" fame) has been found staked out naked and strangled in a training area.
Brennan's boss, Colonel Trent (Timothy Hutton) pairs him with rape investigator Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe). The two are former lovers, and both tension and affection leavens their working relationship. The victim, Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) was a captain in the Army's psychological operations department, and as Brennan and Sunhill discover, she was engaged in some unsavory psy-ops of her own. Their problem is not finding out who had a motive to murder the troubled and sexually disturbed woman, who was sleeping with most of her father's staff, but in figuring out which man with a motive did the deed.
Their chief suspect is Elisabeth's boss, Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods), who clearly knows more than he is letting on. But is he manipulative because it's his job, or because he personally has something to hide? Both Brennan and Sunhill are underwritten characters, but Travolta and Stowe give them life with intelligent performances and utter conviction. Travolta approaches Bogart territory at times in his confrontations with various authority figures. His interrogations of Woods are superbly done, with each man seeking the advantage, and the momentum shifting and turning on the slightest phrase.
Cromwell is very good as the General, who is far more complex than we expect, and Clarence Williams III also does a nice turn as his overly devoted assistant.
As good as Woods and Cromwell are, it is far too easy to overlook just how good Leslie Stefanson is as one of the more three-dimensional murder victims in recent memory. Despite the fact that she is killed 15 minutes into the movie, spends most of her screen time either as a naked corpse, a rape victim, bloodied by a brutal beating, or even in sexual fetishistic gear, her strong performance and the script by Christopher Bertolini and the legendary William Goldman make Elisabeth the subject of our compassion. In lesser hands, the extremely unsavory and seamy aspects of this character would have made this one of movie history's more thankless roles. Moviegoers should be warned that "The General's Daughter" deals explicitly with subjects of kinky sex and brutal rape. Though it is mostly dealt with in a non-exploitative manner and for an ultimately moral purpose, the squeamish should probably stay away.
Until its final reel, "The General's Daughter" avoid the traps of the usual simplistic Hollywood melodrama. If the solution does not quite live up to the investigation, one can at least say that getting there was most of the fun.