If there's one thing I hate about murder mystery stories, it's the all encompassing, late in the game confession from the guilty party that explains everything and conveniently ties up the story's loose ends. Most TV shows of the genre conclude that way, and the same holds true for many similar films.
As such, it's a cheap and lazy way to impart crucial information in what's always an unrealistic fashion. After all, how often in real life do criminals do the same? In fact, it's almost as bad as films where the villain leaves the hero to die a slow death instead of just killing them right there and then, but that's another rant for another time.
In "The General's Daughter," a film based on Nelson DeMille's 1992 novel, the killer not only explains his underlying motives, but other characters similarly decide -- for reasons that only make sense to a screenwriter -- to spill the beans. As a confessional is to Catholics as a place to confess their sins, the end of most murder mystery movies is the same to the guilty and unfortunately that's the case here.
Worse yet, it's not the only problem with this big summer release that will probably evoke such a love/hate response from the audience that moviegoers will think they're suffering from the old Jekyll and Hyde disorder.
On the positive side, the film has the feel of a big-scale picture with an all-star cast, some decent moments and an intriguing story. On the flip side, it deals with some unsavory and ugly subject matter that it then manages to sexualize. In addition, and beyond suffering from the confession- based problems, the film also has some plot elements that are too contrived and/or unbelievable for their and the film's overall own good.
As helmed by director Simon West ("Con Air") who works from the screenplay adaption by William Goldman (an Oscar winner for "All the President's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") and Christopher Bertolini (his first feature), the film can't ultimately overcome the troubling rape material. To make matter worse, the script twists around that touchy subject into a male fantasy element that would make titillation master Joe "Basic Instinct" Ezsterhas proud.
While the rape itself and the immediate family reaction are appropriately troubling, the film doesn't stop there. Instead, it repeatedly shows the audience several views of the deceased woman's nude, but still sexy body lying spread-eagle on the ground, and creates two laughably implausible and potentially offensive, but important elements regarding the victim's earlier reactions to the pivotal event.
Like this year's earlier "8MM," this film leaves a bad taste in the audience's mouth that's next to impossible to rinse out no matter the picture's glossy shine or attractive cast. Beyond, and perhaps in part because of that, the film's murder mystery element doesn't play as well as one might expect. With a small number of potential suspects, the "whodunit" element never comes off as compelling as it should. That's despite the obligatorily imposed time constraint that similarly feels impotent in ratcheting up the suspense factor.
Since the protagonist briefly flirts with the deceased before she meets her demise, the story may have benefitted from having him become a suspect in the eyes of the military brass, particularly when his investigation begins to hit too close to home. Such an addition easily would have added extra layers of suspense and conflict, especially if he hadn't disclosed their brief relationship and/or if they had later been discovered together on a surveillance videotape.
Instead, and notwithstanding Goldman's illustrious writing career, the filmmakers seem more interested in exploring and playing off the former relationship between John Travolta and Madeline Stowe's characters. While the film uses that romantic subplot to generate sparks, conflict and some "dead time" discussion filler, it comes off as too much of an obligatory and predictable element. As such, it feels more like what a computer-based screenwriting program might spit out versus what should seem more natural and/or believable.
That said, the performances and the interaction between the characters are what keep the film afloat. While the dredged up relationship between Travolta ("A Civil Action") and Stowe ("12 Monkeys") does feel forced, the two play well off each other and both deliver fine performances, even if hers feels a bit shortchanged as far as screen time goes. Even better interactions result from Travolta's fun flirtations with newcomer Leslie Stefanson, who plays the soon-to-be deceased, although it's obvious such moments can't and don't last long.
The true showstopper, however, is the exchange between Travolta and James Woods ("Ghosts of Mississippi") as the deceased's suspicious mentor. As they psychologically circle the other with mental jabs being thrown as easily as spears, their brief intellectual sparring match is easily the best audience pleasing moment the film has to offer. Entertaining to watch, it's the moment that finally lets the screenwriters strut their stuff.
Supporting performances, when not betrayed by the need to confess all, are mostly decent across the board. While Clarence Williams III ("Life") is good as the stoic roadblock character, Timothy Hutton ("Beautiful Girls") doesn't have much screen time to flesh out his character, which is too bad considering how everything eventually turns out.
However, the best performance -- as far as maintaining the mystery aura of the story -- comes from James Cromwell ("L.A. Confidential") as the general/father of the victim. Never letting on until late in the story the degree of his involvement in the crime, Cromwell perfectly plays the part, thus ensuring that the audience is never quite sure of his motives.
Although the film probably sounds rather disturbing and depressing, director West and his writers have made sure to throw in some comic relief and action scenes that, for the most part, work in keeping the picture from being too bleak. It also has those big summer movie moments, such as when Stowe's character bluffs her way into a confession, that audiences love to watch.
As such, the film will clearly have its share of fans as well as a good number of detractors. Simply put, that's due to it constantly alternating from being an enjoyable "event" movie to an unsavory picture occasionally filled with ludicrous and/or cliched moments.
While we liked the performances and certain scenes, the whole rape issue, the resultant behavior and how all of it's presented, along with the more elemental cinematic miscues, prevents us from giving it much more than a moderate rating. Thus, "The General's Daughter" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.