"The General's Daughter" is a prosaic, sexually perverse thriller masquerading as a critical look at military injustice. This lazy whodunit wallows in the misogyny it pretends to abhor. There's no disguising the filmmakers' true motives when the camera lingers so lasciviously over the nude body of its raped and ritualistically murdered victim.
John Travolta is the film's star, but Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an accomplished Army officer, is its focus. The only child of the base commander (James Cromwell), the captain is dishonorably discharged from this life by parties unknown.
When her lovely body is discovered in a training field, the authorities are alerted and the police and the coroner arrive, yet for the longest time nobody thinks to cover the bound, spread-eagle corpse.
Travolta cruises through this uninspired psychodrama as Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, a top investigator from the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Brenner is assigned to the case along with Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), a fellow CID veteran and a still-smoldering old flame. The pairing, while lackluster in the chemistry department, brings about a spirited exchange of barbs.
"Nowadays you have to boil someone before you can sleep with them," quips Brenner to Sunhill when he is unable to find any condoms in the victim's apartment. This follows the discovery of the late captain's secret torture chamber and a large cache of sado-masochistic videos. Many of the top brass are caught on tape.
No wonder the politically ambitious general was so adamant about handling the case within the Army family. It's also all too obvious (most everything here is) that Gen. Campbell is more concerned about his image than about his own daughter's death. While the American people are willing to accept a lot from today's leaders, a dead dominatrix for a daughter is definitely the sort of thing the prudent presidential wannabe tries to cover up.
As if the tale weren't smutty enough at this point, Brenner and Sunhill follow the trail to West Point, the scene of a brutal gang rape (depicted in flashback) that has been covered up for the greater good of society: We wouldn't want to discourage females from attending West Point, now, would we? Where, after all, would the world be without buzz-cut hard-noses like "G.I. Jane"?
The proficient and tenacious Sunhill is decidedly a plus, but her tough act doesn't really offset the movie's troubling subtext. She's competent, yes, but a little too coy when it comes to dealing with her old beau. Stowe, so delicate and birdlike, isn't especially persuasive in the buddy-cop role.
Nobody shines under the heavy-handed guidance of Simon West ("Con Air"), who directed this uneven adaptation of Nelson DeMille's popular novel. James Wood hisses and prisses as the victim's gay commanding officer. Clarence Williams III frets and fusses as the general's top aide. Both are among the suspects, along with Timothy Hutton (as the fort's provost marshal) and Cromwell.
As the general, Cromwell makes Al Gore look positively vivacious when he tries to heat up a crowd of potential supporters on the campaign trail. "It sounded like a stump speech," observes a CNN reporter covering the event. Who knew stumps could speak?
"The General's Daughter" doesn't provide a compelling indictment of cronyism and duplicity within the military. While coverups and sex discrimination are continuing problems throughout society, this movie isn't offering any solutions. It's having its cheesecake and eating it, too.
The General's Daughter (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, language and graphic sexual violence, including a gang rape.
CAPTION: John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe trail the murderer of "The General's Daughter."