Murder Most Soggy

Who cares whodunit? Travolta, Stowe, and Hutton in The General's Daughter. Photo: Richard Foreman Jr./Paramount Pictures

The best murder mysteries are usually the ones with the most red herrings. The General’s Daughter, based on the novel by Nelson DeMille and starring John Travolta, certainly has its share of herrings, as well as sharks and whales and eels and blowfish. It’s a regular Fulton Fish Market. But who cares about trying to puzzle out the day’s catch? We never have the sense in this movie of being led willfully astray by the filmmakers. How can they pretend to be one step ahead of us when they’re out of step themselves? The requisite Aha! moment when it all comes together turns out to be a ho-hum moment. Whodunit? Who cares?

As Paul Brenner, a top officer for the army’s criminal investigation division, Travolta is investigating the murder at a Georgia military base of Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), a psychological-warfare expert and the daughter of a retiring general (James Cromwell) short-listed for the vice-presidency. The pulp mix is all here – scandal, Washington, the military, S&M. But seaminess should be more redolent. Despite the anything-for-effect camera work – courtesy of director Simon (Con Air) West – the overriding tone is soggy. About the only thing that’s crisp in this movie is the way everybody salutes.

Travolta has enough star presence to carry the picture – barely. Having been out of the limelight for so many years, he seems to be in every fourth movie now, and, marvelous as he often is, he could profit from acting less and choosing better. The General’s Daughter, like last year’s A Civil Action, plays into a dull streak of righteousness in Travolta; and like most actors, he’s not at his best when he’s bucking for sainthood, although these are often the roles that win awards. The rest of the cast, including Madeleine Stowe as Brenner’s co-investigator and ex-fling, Timothy Hutton as the base’s provost marshal, and James Woods as another psych-warfare expert – good casting! – seems primed for a script with better dialogue than the one they were handed. They all take turns overacting and underacting.

At the end of the movie, a message comes on telling us that there are now almost 200,000 women on active duty in the armed forces. This helpful tidbit is no doubt meant to take our minds off the movie’s garish rape and near-rape scenes and convince us that what we’ve been watching actually has something to do with feminist travails in the military. Right – and The Silence of the Lambs was about the plight of the mad.

Murder Most Soggy