Go behind the lies.
Has Paramount been taking DVD production classes from Warner Brothers? Finally, Paramount does a movie justice with a first-rate transfer and a complementary set of extras. Oh, and the movie is not too bad either.
The judge must admit his prejudices up front. One, I am not particularly fond of most Hollywood murder mystery thrillers. Mostly, they seem like overly long episodes of “Matlock.” Generally they follow the same tired formula: establish the detecting hero, present him (or rarely, her) with a nasty crime that seems impossible to solve, and throw enough red herrings at the audience to sufficiently mask the identity of the real killer. In the last reel, the killer is revealed in a scene in which he or she describes in detail their elaborate steps to cover the crime. Two, I did not expect much out of a movie directed by Simon West. He is the director of many, err, award-winning commercials and Con Air. Granted, I rather enjoyed that movie for its mindless action and the campy acting of Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich, but any director can be the puppet of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and make a movie that lives up the low expectations placed on popcorn action flicks. Good mystery movies, on the other hand, require subtlety and substance. Three, I’m more beatnik than ramrod military guy. I can understand the importance placed upon duty and honor, but I cannot comprehend shaping your life around rank, service, and discipline. It ranks right up there with prison or slavery in my book.
The General’s Daughter follows the same basic plot I listed above. We are introduced to Paul Brenner (John Travolta, Pulp Fiction, Broken Arrow, Get Shorty), a military criminal investigator. At the beginning of the movie, he is working undercover to bust a “freedom fighter” for purchasing purloined military equipment. The man tracks Brenner to his houseboat, but Brenner gets the edge and kills the man.
There, we’ve established what kind of detective our hero is: a military man who is more than willing to bend the rules. In the middle of this preliminary investigation, Brenner meets Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson, The Cowboy Way, Flubber). She works in psychological warfare, and the two coyly flirt. Also introduced are General Joe Campbell (James Cromwell, The Green Mile, L.A. Confidential, Babe) and several of his staff members, including Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods, Vampires, Any Given Sunday), Elisabeth’s mentor, and Campbell’s right hand man, Colonel George Fowler (Clarence Williams III, Life). Let’s pick back up to just after the freedom fighter’s death. Immediately afterwards, Brenner is summoned to the military base to a crime scene. The victim is Elisabeth Campbell. She is naked and tied to the ground with tent pegs, and has been strangled. Here’s the nasty, difficult crime. His friend, Colonel Bill Kent (Timothy Hutton, Playing God, The Falcon And The Snowman), informs him that the victim is the daughter of the base commander, General Campbell. Gen. Campbell is well-respected and is considering political involvement after his impending retirement.
At the crime scene, Brunner runs into Sara Sunhill (Madeline Stowe, Last Of The Mohicans, 12 Monkeys), a fellow investigator who has been called in to work on the case. She also happens to be a former lover. The two unravel the victim’s sexual predilections and the traumatic event in her past that has finally led to her death. It climaxes in not one but several lengthy expositions on the motivations. It is a mystery, so I am reluctant to give away much of the latter acts of the story.
It is formulaic and littered with plot holes, but it is the caliber of acting that raises The General’s Daughter out of the morass of triteness. John Travolta portrays Paul Brunner as a laid-back investigator who hides his cunning under a veneer of humor and bravado. Madeline Stowe as Sara is a nice foil to Brunner. She is one of my favorite actresses. Her acting isn’t particularly flashy, but she imparts inner (and outer) beauty and intelligence to every character she portrays. One of my particular favorites of her roles is in Blink as the blind woman whose sight is renewed just in time to witness a murder. James Cromwell is sorely underused, but he displays the same quiet intensity and menace that he did as Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential. Somewhat surprising, to me at least, is James Woods’ subdued performance. I’m accustomed to his over-the-top acting in movies like Vampires or The Getaway.
Simon West’s direction is better than would be expected for a sophomore follow-up to Con Air. He is not as innovative or daring as his fellow Propaganda Films cohorts, Spike Jonze (director of Roger Ebert’s pick as best film of 1999, Being John Malkovich) and David Fincher (director of Seven and Fight Club). You can see his flair for filming pretty pictures that would come from an earlier career of making commercials or music videos. He allows the actors to act, and that gives the movie its substance.
The General’s Daughter is based on a novel by Nelson DeMille. The screenplay was written by Christopher Bertolini (a newcomer) and William Goldman. If you don’t recognize that name, then you don’t pay enough attention to who writes the great screenplays. He is responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, and The Princess Bride among many others. The script sparkles under his touch.
In the Opening Statement, I said that Paramount seems to have learned how to produce a DVD. Hopefully the trend continues. When I inserted the disc, I was greeted by animated menus that look like they had been produced at great effort and expense. It reminded me of the great animated menus of discs such as Deep Blue Sea or Strange Days. The movie itself is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. It is a very clean transfer, only marred by occasional edge enhancement. Audio is provided both in Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1. I viewed the movie with the 2-channel track, as it most closely matched my system. It sounds great. I was particularly impressed with the separation in the score over the opening credits.
Extras-wise, plentiful content is provided. Simon West recorded a commentary track. His comments are focused, and provide interesting anecdotes and production details. He does not blather on like some directors, but on the other hand there are lengthy gaps between comments. Two trailers are provided. I recall seeing both trailers numerous times in front of other summer movies. They are examples of what a trailer should do — give enough details to make you want to see the movie without giving away the whole plot. The trailers are presented in what appears to be matted 1.66:1. A 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette gives an above-average blend of actor interviews, comments from the production staff, film clips, and on-the-set footage. Four deleted scenes are shown in a continuous piece, preceded with Simon West’s explanations of why the particular scenes were cut. The “alternate ending” is more of an epilogue rather than an alternate depiction of the resolution of the story.
I’ve already stated my protests of the genre and the movie itself. My final nitpick is: With a budget of $60 million, how can a director complain about not having enough money to afford reshoots or more than two days use of a helicopter? Turning that into something of an off-handed compliment…despite his “limited” budget and lack of U.S. Army support, West did a good job of giving The General’s Daughter an authentic and expansive look.
The writing and acting are sharp, and it is nicely filmed, but ultimately The General’s Daughter trips and falls victim to one too many plot holes. For those that like Hollywood-style murder mysteries, it will make a decent addition to your collection. For fans of the principal actors, it will make a good rental. For everyone else…your constitutional rights give you the right to choose for yourself. At least it could legitimately be labeled a “special edition” (though it is not), and that is rare for a Paramount release.
I cannot conclude without committing the cardinal sin of reviewing a John Travolta movie: I must mention that he starred in Saturday Night Fever and Look Who’s Talking.