TRYING TO understand who contributed what to a Hollywood script is an elusive task. Apparently, "The General's Daughter" went through several rounds of rewriting before it landed in the hands of Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman.
But I'll wager all the good parts in the movie came from Goldman, the scriptwriter of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and Hollywood's dean of scribes. Alas, isolating the better elements is about as positive as we can get. It seems the rest of the cooks spoiled this broth.
The movie, starring John Travolta, has the spit and polish of a military whodunit, but it's a confusing, meandering case to follow.
At first, you think you're watching a James Bond film, as Paul Brenner (Travolta), a military warrant officer, defends himself from a ferocious arms buyer trying to drill him full of bullets. Brenner leaves him floating in tuna-sized chunks all over the harbor.
Then the movie seems to be a romance, as Brenner meets Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an intelligent woman loaded with poise, class and beauty, who happens to be passing by when he gets a flat. Brenner -- who's talking with a Gomer Pyle accent to fool people into thinking he's a simpleton or something -- charms the captain and gets her a basket of soaps for helping him change the tire.
Then the unthinkable happens: Campbell is found dead, her nude body tent-pegged to the ground. Another explosive revelation: She's the daughter of General "Fighting Joe" Campbell (James Cromwell), who's being touted as vice presidential material in the coming elections.
Brenner, one of the Army Criminal Investigation Division's top investigators, gets the case. He immediately drops the funny accent and teams up with former partner Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), whose experience as a rape investigator brings much insight to the investigation.
But as soon as Brenner starts asking questions, General Campbell summons him to his residence. There are three ways to do things, says Campbell's grim-faced adjutant, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III): "The right way, the wrong way, and the army way."
From now on, you're in the formulaic grip of "A Few Good Men." Or something like it. Brenner's investigations lead him to many people, including Campbell, Fowler, Colonel Moore (James Woods, once again a master of the edgy role), who was the slain captain's mentor and commanding officer, and Captain Elby (Boyd Kestner), who may have been having an affair with Campbell. You know how these things go.
The movie, directed by Simon ("Con Air") West isn't bad, although the repeated shots of Campbell lying spread-eagled on the ground, and the amount of detail we're forced to swallow about the horrors she underwent border on the offensive.
As Brenner, the central player, Travolta turns in a multi-star performance full of beans, quips and savvy statements. He's a charmer with Captain Campbell (is he working off his "Primary Colors" accent? you wonder). He heroically withstands the blistering attacks of Fowler and Moore. And when a suspect suggests that all men hate their fathers, he retorts "My dad was a drunk, a gambler and a womanizer. I worshiped him."
Ah! But someone wrote that line. My humblest apologies go to writer Bertolini, who might have done more than I've given him credit for. But it smells like quintessential Goldman. So do other great moments, such as Brenner locking romantic horns with Campbell with a great riff about bath soaps, or playing extended, psychological chess games with Moore.
He makes even the tiniest moments sing. A psychiatrist reluctantly informs Brenner and Sunhill that he can't provide the records they need because it's private patient information. But at Sunhill's suggestion, he rants loudly, so that both investigators can "overhear" what he says. As the two leave him, the psychiatrist yells after them: "Sorry, I couldn't be of more help." That's the kind of stuff that really makes a movie. Too bad there wasn't more of it.
THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, violence, nudity and graphic descriptions and depictions of post-rape investigation. Area theaters.
CAPTION: John Travolta takes aim -- with his gun and witty quips -- in "The General's Daughter."