THE HUMID SWAMPS and forests drip with hothouse Southern gothic atmosphere: Weeping willows line the lanes leading to antebellum mansions, and dank swamps glow MTV-video

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God-awful gothic

They tried for Southern atmosphere and came up with a fetid swamp.

THE HUMID SWAMPS and forests drip with hothouse Southern gothic atmosphere: Weeping willows line the lanes leading to antebellum mansions, and dank swamps glow MTV-video amber and red, while cicadas and mosquitoes buzz like over-anxious extras. Good ol' boy supply officer Frank White (John Travolta), plotting a little munitions deal with a gun runner, drawls a smarmy cornpone accent too precious to be real. Right on both counts: White is actually undercover CID officer Paul Brenner using his white-trash cartoon cover to expose a trafficking operation at Georgia's Fort McCallum, and he is indeed far too precious, a smirking smart-ass who makes up in bombast what he lacks in charm.

The General's Daughter

directed by Simon West

starring John Travolta, James Woods, Madeline Stowe

opens June 18 at City Center

Brenner is suddenly called for a new assignment. Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) has been found murdered, naked and staked out in the deserted ruins of a practice range. Brenner immediately launches into action, dropping his fraudulent accent, taunting local law officials, publicly snubbing his newly assigned partner, fellow CID investigator Sarah Sunhill (Madeline Stowe), and playing patriotic lapdog to General Campbell (James Cromwell), the fort commander with political ambitions, who just happens to be the father of the victim.

It doesn't take Brenner and Sunhill long to uncover the dead woman's secret life: a kinky S&M dungeon in her basement, home movies of her erotic exploits, and a list of conquests that goes right up the military chain of command to her daddy's staff. Everyone on base is a suspect, and the specter of a carefully concealed secret from her West Point days, oh-so-cleverly worked into the dialogue every 10 minutes before anyone bothers to dig it out, hangs over the mystery like a flashing siren (did William Goldman really write this script?).

DIRECTOR SIMON WEST shows no more subtlety than he exhibited in the splashy, clunky, look-at-me pyrotechnics of Con Air. His impatient cutting and assertive close-ups couldn't be more at odds with the script's cloistered insularity and attempted moody unease. Travolta and Stowe try their best to create sparks as they almost flirt, almost fight, and never quite convince us that they are anything more than costars thrown together on screen. Any pretense that they are equals in rank or in stature is forgotten when Sunhill sinks from partner to sidekick to woman-in-peril.

Brenner questions the victim's CO, a nervous but cagey Colonel Moore (James Woods), head of the Psychological Operations unit, and for a few brief moments the film comes to life. Travolta and Woods banter with the smooth assurance of two adroit professionals rising to the occasion, slipping in and out of questions with commentary on technique and tactics ("See there? You're trying to make me like you."). It's an oasis of professional sparring in this desert of a film where personality and local color have been boiled down to generic tropes (there's not even a southern drawl to be heard on base once Brenner drops his syrupy fraud). But what hurts most of all is not the by-the-numbers mystery, a potentially interesting story lost in the overbusy plot and jarring direction, but the way West constantly hits us over the head with it. Let up already, there's not that much to get!

 
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