When John Travolta first opens his mouth during the opening credits of ''The General's Daughter'' and speaks in a terrible Southern cracker drawl, one briefly hopes that the movie will turn out to be just as hilariously bad. Unfortunately, the accent is soon revealed to be part of a disguise, and the movie is just as quickly unveiled as a clumsy, run-of-the-mill potboiler. A female officer is discovered strangled and tied to the ground; she's the title character, and because of the general's political ambitions, the mystery of who did it and why has to be wrapped up in 36 hours by Travolta and fellow CID officer Madeleine Stowe (''Last of the Mohicans'', ''12 Monkeys''). Sexual violence and lurid S&M have been thrown in to shore up the incomprehensible plot, but that only adds to the queasy atmosphere. The supporting actors--an impressive collection including James Woods (''Salvador''), Timothy Hutton (''Ordinary People''), and James Cromwell (''Babe'', ''L.A. Confidential'')--don't embarrass themselves, but even they can't make sense of their blustering, macho dialogue. It's amazing that screenwriter William Goldman (who wrote such great and genuinely thrilling films as ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'', ''Marathon Man'', ''All the President's Men'', and ''Misery'') left his name attached to this script; there's no sign of his usual skill and intelligence. Madeleine Stowe, a graceful presence in any film, is equally wasted. Directed with a lot of empty flash by Simon West (''Con Air''). ''--Bret Fetzer''