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THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER

by: Michael Dequina

It appears that the "in" thing for directors of popcorn fluff to do these days is tackle projects of greater weight--witness Ace Ventura helmer Tom Shadyac's Patch Adams and While You Were Sleeping director Jon Turtletaub's Instinct. Yet while those films proved--all too painfully--the limits of their respective directors' skills, Con Air director Simon West respectably stretches beyond slam-bang action theatrics with the largely absorbing mystery thriller The General's Daughter.

However, West is not completely immune to regressing to his commercial-bred bag of tricks. That's not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, West channels that energy into some effective sequences. The quick edits during a big fight scene between Army investigator Paul Brenner (John Travolta) and a weapons-trading baddie are initially distracting, but they do succeed in ratcheting up the tension level. The frenetic visual style works even more effectively in a harrowing rape scene, where the cuts keep the onscreen happenings from being overly graphic and exploitative, all the while still jangling the audience's nerves.

What does become problematic, though, is West's insistence on pleasing the audience in the broadest terms. The story, based on the best selling novel by Nelson DeMille, revolves the brutal murder of the title character, Army captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an Army captain; brought in to solve the crime is Brenner and rape investigator Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe). It soon becomes clear that the two have stumbled onto something bigger, and must (as the tagline goes) "go behind the lies" to find the truth. Complex issues of honor, military code, and loyalty are brought up along the way, and they are all fairly intelligently handled--that is, until the underwhelming end. A big explosion at the climax serves no real purpose other than to inflate the budget and sate audiences hungry for pyrotechnics. The film rebounds with a thought-provoking coda, but instead of leaving audiences with something to chew on, West spoils the mood with an arbitrary (perhaps test screening-mandated?) closing text card that divulges the ultimate fate of one key character. As if not knowing when to quit, he ruins things further with rolling the end credits over a pointless shot of another character literally driving off into the sunset.

Nonetheless, these missteps do not fatally dilute The General's Daughter's effectiveness. While Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman's script takes some interesting twists and turns, what keeps the film gripping are the actors. Apparently learning a page from his Con Air producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, whose instincts at casting are rarely less than keen, West's actors are a perfect fit for their roles. Travolta is ideally cast as the alternately goofy and no-nonsense yet always on-target Brenner; Stowe, exuding her usual air of intelligence, works well off of him. James Woods is in his element as Elisabeth's shady and slimy mentor; just as intimidating, if not more, is Clarence Williams III as a colonel loyal to the general (James Cromwell, carving out a nice post-Babe career as an all-purpose character actor).

Although it has more dramatic heft than a Con Air, The General's Daughter is a fairly comfortable step for West; in the end, it's still unmistakably a Hollywood entertainment, which kept his wrong turns from being ruinous ones. Nonetheless, it is an important step for him, one that shows that he has a grasp on substance as well as style--and, as such, making him a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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