Readers of beachy thrillers like "Plum Island" and "Gold Coast" have long known of author Nelson DeMille's ability to dress up rather conventional plots with enough absorbing bells and whistles to make them brainworthy page-turners.
No surprise, then, that with the benefit of a top-shelf Hollywood cast and crew, the film debut of the DeMille library, "The General's Daughter," steps up smartly as first-rate grown-up entertainment. All the elements converge (including some all-too-familiar plot devices) for a let's-please-everyone summer movie.
For star, we have John Travolta, who hasn't looked back since his return from B-movie hell five years ago in "Pulp Fiction." He plays an Army cop looking into the murder of the title character.
He's paired with Madeleine Stowe, another Army cop with whom he just happens to have shared a romantic episode years before. With assignments and personnel like these, today's action Army's looking better than ever. Ah, but the Army, which obviously didn't sanction this film, turns out to be a villain, in that the general (James Cromwell) and his daughter (smart-sexy Leslie Stefanson, in a debut) both have curious ideas about duty and country. James Woods, Clarence Williams III and Timothy Hutton decorate the Georgia pine landscape with other trim-looking soldiers as suspects.
If DeMille concocted the meandering plot, young writer Christopher Bertolini and old pro writer William Goldman added some nifty dialogue. You can almost taste the echoes of Goldman's "All the President's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in the verbal jousting between Woods and Travolta. Director Simon West, a commercial maker who debuted with the hyperactive "Con Air," jazzes things up at every opportunity, disregarding Dave Barry's admonition that "a movie's quality is in inverse proportion to the number of helicopters in it."
The increased activity works to the detriment of Travolta, who looks older than his 45 years and obviously carries more avoirdupois than military guidelines recommend. But that's a problem slickly solved by stunt doubles. And if the former dance-hall heartthrob has been popping too many Snackwells, he's also gained the kind of repartee experience that allows him to hold his own when the interrogatory stares and the righteous glares become the order of the day.
The fit and forthright Stowe gets a solid scene or two, too. Enough to remind us that she's a maturing first-rate talent that somebody ought to find a good movie for.
Maybe one of those sturdy DeMille plots could serve the purpose. Only next time maybe we can do without the wisacre put-downs of the local cops, the tough guy's foiling of the midnight attacker and the kind of out-loud sexist repartee that nobody in his or her right mind could hope to get away with these days.
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