A D.E.A. Agent investigates the disappearance of a legendary Army Ranger Drill Sergeant and several of his cadets during a training exercise gone severely awry.
Tom Hardy, an ex-Army Ranger turned DEA agent, is drawn into an ever-widening mystery surrounding the disappearance of the feared and often hated Sgt. Nathan West, as well as several of his elite Special Forces trainees on what appears, at first, to have been a routine training exercise during a hurricane in the jungles of Panama. Only two survivors are found, Dunbar, and a badly wounded Kendall, the son of a high-profile Joint Chiefs of Staff official. Neither is willing to cooperate with Capt. Julia Osborne's investigation. So base commander Col. Bill Styles calls in ex-Ranger Hardy, an old friend and a persuasive interrogator. Osborne disapproves of Hardy who is on leave from the D.E.A. after having come under suspicion of accepting bribes from local drug traffickers. She is also uneasy when she learns that Hardy once trained under West and hates him almost as passionately as his current recruits. With time running out, Hardy and Osborne call a temporary, if uneasy, truce. Hardy cajoles a confession out of Dunbar, who claims that Sgt. West and the missing Rangers have been murdered and their bodies blown away by the hurricane. When they later interview Kendall, he confirms that the other Rangers and West are dead. But, in almost every other way, his story contradicts Dunbar's. What happened to West and his Ranger team? And what were they really doing out there in the jungle? As each layer reveals more lies and greater deceptions, Hardy and Osborne inch towards the horrible truth about the fate of the missing Rangers.
An Army sergeant takes six of his special troops on a training mission into the rain-soaked Colombian jungles and only two come out alive. When the rescue mission arrives, they see one soldier killing another and carrying a wounded comrade. As the interrogation begins, the soldier refuses to talk to anyone other than another Ranger. The investigating officer protests, but her commanding officer nonetheless brings in a former Ranger and current DEA agent to help. The agent is currently on suspension from DEA for allegedly accepting a bribe. From this point on, the plot continues to twist and turn and offers numerous surprises that keeps the story interesting.
- A helicopter circles over the Panamanian jungle. On board is a team of Army Ranger trainees and their instructor, Master Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson). Their objective is to move through the jungle in hurricane weather, use live ammo to hit pop-up metal targets, then rendezvous at a small bunker.
Seventeen hours later, Colonel Bill Styles (Timothy Daly) is aboard a helicopter searching for the same team he had expected back on base a long time ago. He witness three of his rangers, later identified as Ray Dunbar, Second Lieutenant Levi Kendall and Mueller, emerge from the jungle. However, things seems to have gone horribly wrong as Dunbar and Mueller are shooting at each other and Kendall is unconscious on Dunbar's shoulders. Dunbar kills Mueller in self-defense. The rest of the team, including West, are not found and presumed dead.
In an interrogation room back on base, Captain Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) makes little headway with Dunbar, who refuses to talk. He is given a pad of paper on which he writes that he will only speak to a fellow Ranger, someone from outside the base, and draws an "8" inside a circle on the piece of paper. Noticeably spooked upon seeing the 8, base commander, Colonel Styles calls in a friend and experienced interrogator, Tom Hardy (John Travolta).
Hardy, an ex-Ranger who quit the army, is now a DEA agent who is presently under investigation for suspicion of bribery. We also find out that Hardy served under West when he was a Ranger and hated him. Hardy and Osborne, initially wary of each other, are forced to work together during the 6 hours they are given before the CID transportation from Washington will arrive to take Dunbar and Kendall away to initiate an investigation. Styles wants to provide as many answers as possible before they take over so their investigation can be as quiet as possible.
Osborne doesn't approve Hardy's involvement in her investigation because of his messy resume but does come around when Hardy strikes a conversation with Dunbar, who, until now, had not uttered a single word, proving he is more qualified than he looks.
The audience learns through Dunbar that West is infamous for being a ruthless, tough-as-nails sergeant. One trainee in Dunbar's unit, a black soldier named Pike, earned West's wrath more than any other. Pike was selected for the Panama training mission along with Dunbar, Kendall, Mueller and two other soldiers, Nuñez and Castro. Since he seemed to have plenty of reasons to hate West, it is suggested that Pike had enough motive to murder him. At this point, Dunbar refuses to say anything more but confirms that the other members of the team and West are all dead.
Hardy and Osborne then visit the other surviving team member, Second Lieutenant Levi Kendall, who is recovering from gunshot wounds sustained during the mission. It is revealed that Kendall is the son of a Joint Chiefs of Staff general. At the hospital, Hardy runs into Dr. Peter Vilmer (Harry Connick Jr.), an old friend, and also Osborne's on-again, off-again lover.
Kendall reveals that he's gay and once had a homosexual relationship with another soldier that became public. His father pulled some strings to have Kendall transferred to West's unit to cover up the scandal. He claims West hated him for that. He also claims that West silently threatened his life in the helicopter, shortly before the mission began. Kendall was partnered with Castro for the mission and feared that West may have bribed Castro to give him a "training accident".
Kendall explains that during the exercise, they found West dead, apparently hit in the back with a white phosphorus grenade, and that Pike later confessed to the crime, thinking that his comrades would go along with it. However, the team decided to turn Pike in when they would be picked up the next morning.
In the middle of the night, Pike tried to rouse Kendall's sympathies by playing to their mutual hatred of West. Pike proposed they kill Mueller and Nunez and persuade Dunbar and Castro to back them up. Kendall dismissed Pike's proposal and went back to his sleeping area. He later spotted Pike whispering to Dunbar. According to Kendall, Dunbar then went back to his bag, retrieved his pistol and aimed it at a sleeping Mueller. Kendall intervened, and caused Mueller to shoot Castro. After Castro was hit, he fired frantically striking Nunez, Kendall and Pike. Nunez and Pike were killed and Kendall was wounded. Dunbar then carried the wounded Kendall on his back through the jungle, exchanged fire with Mueller, and was picked up, as seen in the beginning of the movie. When asked why Dunbar would go through all the trouble of carrying him out of the jungle, Kendall suggests that perhaps Dunbar expected him to cover for him in gratitude for saving his life.
Hardy and Osborne confronts Dunbar with Kendall's revelations. An angry Dunbar claims that Kendall is lying and that he didn't shoot West. He also claims that Mueller and Castro were selling prescription drug injection kits called "combat cocktails" which help dull physical pain and sharpen the mind, and that Kendall was in on it. Hardy refuses Dunbar's drug story because he thinks Dunbar only said drugs to get Hardy's attention as a DEA agent. The argument leads to a fist fight and Hardy almost leaves the base angry with Osbourne trying to convince him to stay. However, their argument stops when Hardy remembers Dunbar's words about not shooting West. He realizes that, according to Kendall's story, West was not shot but hit with a phosphorus grenade. Hardy starts to believe Dunbar doesn't know how West really was killed. They return to Dunbar to listen to the rest of his story.
Dunbar explains that the grenade was used to lure West at a specific point where Mueller shot him because he was aware of their drug dealing. Mueller used Pike's grenade, which he had stolen from his pack earlier, to avoid suspicion. Back at the bunker, Mueller tried to pin the blame on Pike, but when Pike began pointing out evidence that threw suspicion on Mueller instead, a fierce argument began, Mueller lost his temper and shot Pike in the head. A firefight ensued and Castro and Nunez were killed. Dunbar rescued Kendall, hiked through the jungle, killed Mueller and was picked up by the helicopter.
At Osborne's request, Dunbar provides proof of the alleged drug-dealing operation. He also says that it was Vilmer who supplied the drugs to Mueller and Castro.
When Osborne and Hardy return to the hospital, they speak briefly with Dr. Vilmer. After a short interrogation, during which Osborne breaks his nose with a phone book, Vilmer admits that he distributed to Mueller and Kendall and that he falsified drug tests so that the soldiers would come up clean. Vilmer is then placed under arrest.
Styles accepts Dunbars and Vilmers confessions as enough to close the investigation. When Osbourne suggests that Kendall should be questioned further since he lied the first time, Styles orders them to stay away from Kendall considering his father's status.
Hardy and Osborne ignore the order and return to confront Kendall, who is acting odd and refuses to give them any useful information, even mocking them. He still claims that Dunbar is the guilty party. After a few minutes, Hardy notices that Kendall is bleeding out of his ears. Suddenly, Kendall starts vomiting blood and then abruptly dies. Right before Kendall dies he uses his blood soaked finger to draw the symbol for infinity in Osborne's hand.
Styles is furious that Osborne and Hardy ignored his orders. He relieves Osborne of her duty and asks Hardy to leave. He informs them that Dunbar and Vilmer will be taken away shortly on the transport plane that has arrived from the U.S. and he considers the investigation closed.
Osborne comments on Kendall's drawing in her hand when she realizes that he didn't draw the infinity symbol, but an 8. Remembering Dunbar's note which also had an 8, she shows this to Hardy, who first denies knowing what the 8 may symbolize. When she insists on pursuing her investigation even though they were just ordered to drop it, Hardy finally explains the conversation he had earlier with Styles about a rumored group of ex-Rangers in Panama, trained under West, who turned rogue and became drug-dealers. They call themselves Section 8. Osborne, mad at Hardy for not telling her sooner engages him in a fist fight that ends when Hardy tries to kiss her and she pulls her gun on him.
After their scuffle, they return to the stockade where Vilmer, still in custody, remarks to Hardy and Osborne in an offhand manner that he will be on the same plane as Pike. Hardy corrects him, saying that he'll be on the same plane as Dunbar, but Vilmer says that's not right. He explains that Ray Dunbar is black. This means that the white "Dunbar" Hardy and Osborne have been questioning all night is in fact Pike, the man whom West antagonized during training (according to his own story). Pike had switched his tags with Dunbar's in order to throw off the local authorities, then disappear after being transported for trial. The soldier files never specifies the soldier's ethnicity.
Hardy and Osborne rush back to the base just as Pike is being taken onto a transport plane. Hardy grabs Pike and holds his face dangerously close to the plane's whirling propeller until Pike faints and drops to his knees. Afterwards, Hardy and Osborne lead Pike away to interrogate him again now that they know the truth.
In Pike's new story, West was not shot. Pike claimed West knew about the real operation going on at the base, cocaine smuggling. He claims West confronted the Rangers in the bunker and told them that he would turn them in to authorities in the morning and tell Styles everything. A brief Mexican standoff ensued and West escaped the bunker. Nuñez chased after him, but got shot by West. Shortly after Castro and Mueller went looking for West. Later on, Pike and Kendall found Dunbar dead. West surprised them and shot Kendall, wounding him, and then tried to persuade Pike to surrender himself. Mueller then came out and managed to kill West. Pike shot at Mueller, and then, knowing that he would be blamed if West died, took Dunbar's dog tags. It is still thoroughly established that he managed to escape, carried Kendall through the jungle, killed Mueller and was picked up by the helicopter.
To prove his story, he gives Hardy, Osborne and Styles, the number of a crate where Vilmer had stowed cocaine.
Satisfied that they finally have their answers, Hardy and Styles retreat to Styles' office, unknowingly followed by Osborne who finds it odd that she was not invited to join them. Hardy tells Styles that he finds it odd that West didn't tell his colonel (Styles) about the drugs as soon as he suspected something. Hardy then accuses Styles of lying; he tells Styles that he believes West did in fact go to him, but that he was behind the drug trafficking operation the whole time. Rather than side with West, he ordered Mueller and Kendall to kill him and then poisoned Kendall afterward to keep him quiet. Styles laughs off the accusations, but as Hardy starts to leave, Styles offers him a percentage of the operation to keep his mouth shut, confirming he is indeed behind the whole drug operation. Hardy now understands why Styles called him to investigate. If he found anything, he could be easily discredited or bought. Hardy says he'll have to think about it and turns to leave. Styles draws his weapon to shoot Hardy, but is shot and killed by Osborne who heard the whole exchange.
After the Military Police wraps up the investigation into Styles' shooting, Hardy and Osborne have a coffee before they leave the base separately. Hardy tells Osborne not to worry about the charges and that she would be cleared. All she has to do is "Tell the story right". Osborne recalls hearing that same phrase during both Kendall and Pike's stories, particularly in describing how members of the conspiracy planned to cover up West's death. This makes Osborne suspect Hardy may be somehow involved, especially since he hated West and because Section 8 is rumored to contain many of West's former trainees. She tails him out of the base and watches as Pike suddenly runs out from some bushes and into Hardy's jeep.
She follows them by car and then by foot through the streets of Panama City and watches as the two of them enter a doorway with a big eight ball hanging over it. Osborne sneaks up behind Hardy and Pike, with her weapon drawn, believing that they are Section 8 and are responsible for West's murder. She confronts Hardy with her own theories but becomes very confused when West, very much alive and well, walks up behind her and sits at the table with Pike and Hardy. Castro, Dunbar and Nuñez, also alive, come out of the kitchen and join them.
They reveal to Osbourne that Section 8 is in fact a special black-ops anti-drug unit led by Tom Hardy himself. The mercenary stories are used as a cover to spook the cartels. Dunbar, Castro, Nuñez and Pike (all fake names) infiltrated the base to investigate the cocaine trafficking that was going on, and discovered that Mueller, Kendall and Vilmer were responsible. West, not realizing that Styles was also involved, informed him of their findings, although keeping their involvement a secret. Styles responded by ordering Mueller and Kendall to kill West. The training mission was a set-up to get rid of Mueller and Kendall, and fake West's death. West joined Section 8, and Hardy went to the base to confirm Styles' and Vilmer's involvement. West and Hardy then offer Osborne a job within their group. The movie ends when it is revealed that Tom Hardy is not a DEA agent and never left the army. He's in fact, a Colonel.