Tom Hardy (Travolta) is a DEA agent and former U.S. Army Ranger operating in Panama, who is currently on suspension due to suspicion that he's corrupt. While on suspension, he is called upon by old Army buddy Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly), the commander of a nearby U.S. military base that is a few months away from closing, to investigate a training exercise that was being led by Hardy's old drill sergeant, Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson), one that appears to have resulted in multiple deaths and soldiers being MIA.
After a prolonged and grueling training period, Sgt. West took about half a dozen of his Ranger trainees to a remote location for a live fire exercise just as a hurricane is barreling down on them. After 17 hours without radio contact, a helicopter was sent in to pick them up. As the helicopter drew near, one of the trainees can be seen carrying another, who is apparently wounded. Suddenly, a third trainee pops out of the forest and starts shooting at the two of them. After an exchange of gunfire, the third trainee goes down.
None of the other soldiers (including West) have been found, and neither of the witnesses are talking. To get to the bottom of what happened and why, Hardy and Army investigator Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) will have to deal with lies and deceptions from the moment that Hardy sets foot on the base, and it'll only get worse as the witnesses start talking and try to spin what happened to their benefit.
This film contains examples of:
- Arc Words: "All we have to do is tell the story right..."
- Artistic License Military: Ranger training is intense and grueling, but no army in the world would let West use some of the methods he does. Then, there's the fact that West's rank insignia keeps changing, no women graduated from Ranger training until 2015 while the story clearly takes place at the end of the 90s, etc. That said, numerous characters practically say that West only got away with using such methods because of his prestige, and also, virtually everyone was lying, and Nuñez was part of Section 8 and therefore only undercover as a Ranger, not an actual one.
- Batman Gambit:
- Hardy claims that Dunbar is trying to pull this on him when Dunbar mentions the drug ring on base, more or less saying "You know I'm DEA, so you figure you mention drugs, and I'm all ears!"
- Hardy acts this way through most of the movie, though it takes a second or third viewing to see it as such. A particularly good example is when he tries to get Osborne to leave Kendall out of the report to Styles after their interrogation of Vilmer. He knows she won't leave it alone, so he sets her up to push the issue, thereby leaving him to seemingly follow her lead.
- Blast Out: Several of the flashbacks end up in this.
- Bluffing the Murderer: After Hardy comes to suspect that Colonel Styles is involved, he tries to do this. At first Colonel Styles brushes it off and calls Hardy's bluff, but then he tries to bribe Hardy into silence.
- The Chessmaster: Tom Hardy
- Dirty Cop: Hardy is under investigation, accused of taking bribes. Kendall even tells Osbourne to ask how many people Hardy has killed for the sake of "his" drug dealers.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: This is West's calling card, with the implication that he is at least somewhat sadistic but gets away with his questionable methods due to his prestige.
- Elites Are More Glamorous: The movie revolves entirely around US Army Rangers.
- Faking the Dead: Pretty much everyone who was killed in flashbacks is revealed to not be dead.
- From Camouflage to Criminal: The base is dogged by rumors that some former Army Rangers and covert ops guys in the area went rogue and set themselves up as a crime syndicate. It's also speculated that they may have had something to do with West's disappearance, as many of the members were said to be former trainees of West, who hated him as much as any of his other trainees did. This is eventually proven to be untrue, but a number of people on the base, including Colonel Styles himself, are involved in illegal criminal activities.
- Gambit Pileup: Dunbar's telling one tale. Kendall's telling another. Styles just wants the whole thing taken care of. He also doesn't want his side business of selling "combat cocktails" with Dr. Vilmer going under. And Hardy and Capt. Osborne have the unenviable task of figuring out who's telling the truth, and who's trying to save their own ass. Hardy also has to do all this without giving away his membership in Section 8.
- Helicopter Blender: Hardy threatens to do this to Dunbar as part of his Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique.
- I Never Said It Was Poison: Subverted, Styles points out that as Kendall suddenly started vomiting blood before he died, poison is a reasonable guess.
- Large Ham: Hardy.
- Make It Look Like an Accident/The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: In the words of Sgt. West: "Those of you I find lacking will quit. And those of you who refuse to quit will have a training accident. This base suffers three training accidents a year. Unfortunate accidents that I will not hesitate to repeat if you cross me!"
- Well, accident may not necessarily imply that they will die, just that they will be too severely injured to continue.
- Mildly Military: The movie had so many inconsistencies and non-military actions, that the film was hard to follow. For example:
- Samuel L. Jackson's character wears the rank of specialist (E-4) rather than a sergeant (most likely E-6 or E-7 for a drill instructor, possibly higher for one with the fame/notoriety of West) and consistently has higher-ranking people addressing him as "sir."
- The film featured a female Ranger without any comment on it. In real life the first successful female graduates of Ranger training only happened during the summer of 2015, (and the Army may still refuse to allow them to formally serve as Rangers) and the film is set no later than the end of the 90s, (all US Army bases in Panama were officially abandoned no later than 1999-2000, and Styles mentions that the base is only months away from closing down) and not in an alternate universe.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Once the witnesses start talking, things just keep escalating. Since we started with five people presumed dead, (one of whom is described as "The face of the modern Army") that's rather impressive.
- The Neidermeyer: West. Every trainee who was trained by him hated him, to the point that Hardy comments that someone snapping and trying to kill West was inevitable.
- Never Found the Body: It's commented that as none of the bodies can be found, proving anyone's story will be hard. Justified, as it's also said that hurricane could have blown the bodies anywhere. Even more Justified, they aren't actually dead.
- The Rashomon An interesting case, as we see the same two perspectives through multiple retellings, with each person changing their version multiple times. In addition, none of the stories are true. The truth isn't revealed until the very end, and technically, we never find out exactly what happened on the island.
- Right Under Their Noses:
- Dunbar is actually Pike. He switched dog tags, which don't specify race, and has been trying to throw everyone off his trail. (Or at least so it appears at the time, as the ending throws that out the window.) How no one on the base recognized him or checked his ID in any other way than his dog tags may cause some Fridge Logic, however.
- In several of the flashbacks, Sgt. West angrily reprimands the trainees for being part of a drug smuggling/distribution ring and trying to get away with it under his nose.
- Rogue Agent: A story circulating around the base is that a group of Rangers who trained under West (and like everyone else, hated West) went rogue and set themselves up as a drug syndicate. Now West and most of his latest group of trainees are missing...
- Scary Black Man: Sgt. West, who is also a Bald, Black Leader Guy.
- Training from Hell: They even call it Green Hell.
- Unfriendly Fire: We open with Ranger trainees shooting each other, and in the stories that Dunbar and Kendall tell, the situation on the island often involves this, frequently aimed at killing West and covering it up afterward.