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the u . s . army utilizes a number of books known as field manuals which stipulate the specific way in which almost every action imaginable must be done .
one particular field manual is known as the fm 22-5 , which among other things , covers the practice of saluting .
under the " saluting " section is a sub-section which covers how a salute is rendered by a military work detail in the presence of a superior officer .
the salute is rendered by the highest-ranking individual present when the superior officer comes within six paces of the detail , and is dropped when the officer passes six paces from the detail .
in any event , the salute is rendered only by the man ( or woman ) in charge , rather than by the whole group .
almost at the very beginning of the general's daughter , we see a general's motorcade passing a work detail .
everyone salutes .
it looked impressive , but it just wasn't right .
that little bit showed me that someone either didn't do the appropriate research , or made the conscious decision to go with style over substance for the scene .
in fact , this would serve as a metaphor for the rest of the picture , as it seems director simon west tried so hard to craft a film with atmosphere and flash that he forgot a coherent story and good characterization are also crucial to a good movie .
what results is a film that looks good , but like that one scene , just isn't right .
the first fifteen minutes of the film is a good example .
paul brenner ( john travolta ) is an agent for the army's criminal investigation division , undercover at a georgia army base to investigate an illegal arms sale .
prior to the transaction , the buyer gets a whiff that brenner isn't the unscrupulous supply sergeant he's supposed to be , and later that night attempts to kill him by shooting up the houseboat on which brenner is living .
so ensues a cat and mouse action sequence which ends like a certain scene in raiders of the lost ark ( we'll just say that it involves propellers ) .
brenner then receives new orders when the commanding general's daughter , captain elisabeth campbell ( leslie stefanson ) , is found naked , bound , and dead on one of the base's training ranges .
he is teamed with rape investigator sarah sunhill ( madeleine stowe ) to uncover the truth about the peculiarly gruesome murder .
what i want to know is why the whole action scene with the arms buyer was even necessary .
it gives no insight into brenner , other than the fact that he's a little cocky .
does the arms subplot turn up later ?
no , so why add this extra running time to the film ?
the answer : it looked cool .
or how about the " atmosphere " ?
the beginning of the general's daughter presents us with imagery of the deep south - thick trees , dirt roads , sultry colors over water - all backed up with bayouesque music .
nice immersion in the setting , but it soon doesn't matter , for when the film's plot shifts over to the murder investigation , so does the entire mood .
no attention is paid to the location of the story , and the music is altered to fit a very generic thriller theme .
did the filmmakers start out thinking they were making a different movie ?
instead of creating a cohesive atmospheric theme for the entire film , we get the distraction of one of theme followed by another , just because the director thought he should show off some of the countryside .
the above examples also serve to illustrate that inconsistency is another problem with this movie .
as i've already mentioned , an entire section of the film doesn't jibe with the rest , and the characterization only adds to the difficulty .
brenner , who comes across as a man with little respect for authority , suddenly snaps to in the presence of general campbell ( james cromwell ) and utters some of the corniest " yes , sir " s i've ever heard .
he even delivers an emotion-charged monologue about why he will work so hard to catch the person who killed the general's daughter , even though he was totally flippant about the whole thing just a couple of minutes previous .
sunhill , who initially comes across as a professional investigator , utilizes a couple of blatantly illegal methods to obtain information , and even revels in her ingenuity .
both characters are protagonists , but it's hard to get behind them when their personalities are all over the place , and in some cases , simply unappealing .
i could imagine that during filming , west would shoot a scene , then take the actors aside and tell them , " let's do it again , but this time , i want more . "
i say this because although travolta and stowe are normally very good , in this film they overact in most of their scenes .
an even worse offender is clarence williams iii as the general's aide , colonel fowler .
i swear the guy says all of his lines from the position of attention .
a far cry from his days as linc in " the mod squad " , i can't help but think he was acting from west's direction .
a couple of side characters including a west point psychologist ( john beasly ) and a young female private ( ariyan a . johnson ) make their scenes nearly impossible to bear .
the only two actors who seem to have escaped west's influence are james woods , who provides a good performance as colonel moore , elisabeth's mentor at the psychological operations unit , and timothy hutton as colonel kent of the military police .
woods relishes the role of a man whose job is playing with people's minds , and does so without ever taking it over the top .
hutton just kind of hangs around , but at least he wasn't overacting .
i haven't read the nelson demille novel on which this movie was based , but i'll bet more than a few dollars that the story was better in book form .
the movie version has got characters which come and go with little or nothing to do except fill up space , or provide bits of information which seem to neither mean anything in terms of advancing the story nor reveal any significance once the whole story is finished .
every time we're presented with some new aspect to the case , west gives us more of that flash by playing it up like it's the most momentous discovery ever , but the information is not used by the investigators at all .
instead , when conclusions are drawn , they are such tremendous leaps of faith that you wonder if successful investigations are not based on facts , but lucky guesses instead .
the army should have saved time by bringing in brennan and sunhill , letting them play a game of twenty questions with the suspects , then letting them guess who the killer was .
would've been over in a half hour .
the film finishes with a sort of bookend , featuring the same style and southern scenery as the very beginning .
literally during the closing credits , we get to see brennan get in his car and drive off , then we get to see sunhill get in her car and drive off .
they both seem kind of happy .
maybe they were driving away from simon west .
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