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Saturday, Nov. 13, 1999

Death and the army maiden

"The General's Daughter" is a courageous movie. It's a virtual corrida: wrestling with the thorny subject of gender, grabbing onto its horns for an hour and 57 minutes without letting go. In the end, both it and the subject are bloody and exhausted. The viewer (this one at least) was so drained she was sure of a dramatic decrease in her white blood cell count.

Directed by Simon West ("Con Air") in what is his second major production project, "The General's Daughter" is a rare Hollywood experiment in the "anti-feel-good" approach to filmmaking. There's fear, loathing, disgust, astonishment, all with an undercurrent of respect for West's masterful storytelling. But a nice moment is not what this film is out to deliver. If you make the mistake of settling into your seat with a bucket of popcorn, it is my duty to inform you that it'll go to waste.

Based on the best-selling novel by Nelson Demill, "The General's Daughter" is a harrowing story of gender politics in the military. It puts productions like "G.I. Jane" to blushing shame, while moving into territory that "Courage Under Fire" had not dared to tread.

The story begins with a murder on an army base. The victim is Capt. Elizabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), only daughter of Lt. Gen. Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), who is the idol of the troops. Elizabeth is beautiful, intelligent and as fit for battle as any of the boys. One night she turns up stripped, strangled and tied to the muddy ground. Military investigator Brenner (John Travolta) is called in, along with specialist Sarah (Madeline Stowe), to catch the criminal and bring him to justice.

The crime seems heinous enough, but Brenner discovers Elizabeth's death was in perfect accordance with her other life, which consisted of sadomasochistic orgies in her home basement. Her partners ranged from her boss, Col. Moore (James Woods), to the general's young aides. Everyone is a likely suspect, including Elizabeth's grieving father whom Brenner quickly sees has a lot to hide. What was at the bottom of Elizabeth's behavior and what were her true relations with dear old dad?

All this ground bears the footprints of "Twin Peaks," but the big difference is backdrop. A White House chief of staff apparently said that one day there won't be a military position or post unoccupied by women. But this movie convinces us that the day will certainly have its repercussions. Elizabeth was attractive, seductive and taught soldiers how to "f**k with the enemy's mind" as to render them powerless.

This simple plot line has several layers of subtexts that need sifting, wouldn't you say? No doubt the movie is making a point here: A sexy woman talking about powerlessness in an army camp could have the effect of several bombshells.

The character of Sarah also puts her two cents worth into this gender minefield. While investigating every brutal detail of the crime, she flirts with Brenner, who happens to be an old flame. But she doesn't bat an eyelash when he gets excessively rough with the suspects they round up. No, she leans back a la Wyatt Earp, with her arms crossed over her chest, and kind of smirks: heh, heh, heh. Combine all this with the fact that she's knockout gorgeous and wears demure linen outfits and what do you get? I gave up trying to figure it out.

The only person spared the gender contradictions is Brenner. West has him down as a machismo simpleton, who loves his country, army and all the rest of it. Travolta plays the part with obvious relish, engaging in flirtatious chitchat one minute and charging like a moose (complete with sweat rings under his arms) into a suspicious house the next.

A beefy bully when dealing with no-gooders, he's all calculated awkward charm in the presence of femmes. While every other male seems intimidated by the two superwomen in their midst, Brenner's confidence alone remains unshaken, encased in an armor of male chauvinism.

A suggestion to all feminist course professors: "The General's Daughter" should be required viewing and worth several papers. Are there women-hating sentiments? Probably. Military-hating sentiments? Most likely. Electra Complex issues? Absolutely. And it makes you think about how far women-in-the-army movies have come. Remember when it used to be all about Kelly McGillis in "Top Gun"? Now its innocence seems even poignant.

"The General's Daughter" is playing at the Marunouchi Piccadilly and other theaters.

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