Pat Travis (Troy Evans) is a Vietnam war veteran who needs a triple bypass heart surgery, and thus heads off to the government-funded Monument Heights Veterans' Hospital in Washington D.C. However, as he gets there, he meets a hospital in complete chaos, riddled with lethargic, insidious bureaucracy and unable to accommodate new patients due to the government's 'creeping cutback' policy. There, he meets wiseguy veterans Luther Jerome (Keith David), who introduces him to the hospital's hectic situation, and 'Shooter' Polaski (Leo Burmester), who shortly drives through the hospital's entrance and starts a shooting rampage with his M16 after being issued an Article 99 form - which states the hospital finds the patient eligible, but can't be treated immediately as the supposed ailment is not combat-related.
The hospital is managed by the by-the-book bureaucrat Executive Director, Dr. Henry Dreyfoos (John Mahoney), who is determined to uphold the government's policies by any means, to the point of directly cutting patient's acceptance rates by half and instituting rigorous dressing codes and supply upkeeping regulations. He's backed up by Chief of Medicine Leo Krutz (Jeffrey Tambor) and Chief Nurse Amelia Sturdeyvant (Julie Bovasso), who follow and back-up Dreyfoos' policies, fearing for their jobs. Dreyfoos greatest opposition comes from the hospital's ER team led by surgeon Dr. Richard Sturgess (Ray Liotta), who has no qualms in exposing Dreyfoos' politicking to the press when he has the opportunity (Mostly thanks to his friend Luther) and performing illegal midnight hospital supply thefts called 'midnight requisitions' to be able to properly perform surgeries. Dreyfoos is aware of Sturgess' activities, but can't prosecute him as he can't gather evidence.
Sturgess' team is shortly joined by Dr. Peter Morgan (Kiefer Sutherland), who plans to work temporarily in the hospital before starting private practice. He's eventually instructed by Sturgess and his colleagues Ruby Bobrick (John C. McGinley), Sid Handleman (Forest Whitaker) and Robin Van Dorn (Lea Thompson) and constantly monitored by Nurse White (Lynne Thigpen). His 'potential' after failing to attend to Travis' heart attack and causing a ruptured artery has Sturgess trying to convince him to join the team and also fight Dreyfoos' administration, but Morgan refuses, fearful their wrongdoings will eventually influence his medicine career. Meanwhile, Morgan also meets World War II veteran Sam Abrams (Eli Wallach), considered by the hospital a 'gomer', a person that can't be admitted even with critical condition and has constantly to be moved and kept from administration so he won't be dismissed until he can be cured. Abrams' sharing of experiences with Morgan has the newcomer doctor slowly start caring for him and start disagreeing to several of the hospital's conditions, especially that he can't properly accommodate the veteran and has to use old diagnoses to repeat needless exams. Morgan also starts a relationship with Robin while Sturgess does so with psychologist Diana Walton (Kathy Baker), equally a by-the-book character that slowly starts opening up to Sturgess shortly after Polaski's incident.
Morgan learns, through overhearing Dreyfoos' conversation through the phone, a new shipment of cardiac surgery tools is stored in the Pathology department and relays it to Sturgess, who performs a 'midnight requisition' to get them. Unfortunately, this was an elaborate trap set by Dreyfoos, who films the theft and blackmails Sturgess into voluntary suspension and declaration of guilt when charges are brought up, in exchange for the tape and a written declaration sparing both Bobrick and Handleman. Sturgess falls apart while Walton backs him up, committed on not giving up on him. Shortly after, Abrams himself passes away and this affects Morgan heavily, feeling he failed him and starting to take charge. Morgan eventually finds Dreyfoos' tape and, infuriated he was used as bait, declares open rebellion against Dreyfoos, getting himself suspended.
Morgan arranges for Sturgess to return to the hospital and both, along with Luther and the veterans, start planning a hostile takeover to properly attend the patients without the administration's interference. The veterans successfully lock the security guards outside while Dreyfoos is away, and Luther, armed with Polaski's M16, keeps the guards away while the police, despite being pressured, can't remove the blocking veterans as the hospital is under federal jurisdiction, much to Dreyfoos' chagrin. It doesn't take long before the press arrives and this catches attention of the FBI and the Inspector General (Noble Willingham), who hastily travels to assess the situation. The Inspector General attempts negotiating with Luther, but he stands his ground as the veterans unfurl a massive banner in the hospital written 'No Surrender'.
The FBI prepares to break into the hospital and retake it by force, cutting off the power supply and issuing a final warning. Sturgess, who starts Travis' triple bypass surgery after he's in critical condition, leaves Morgan in charge as he convinces Luther to lay down resistance and reopen the hospital, much to the Inspector General's shock. He and Dreyfoos enter the building and attempt to interrupt Travis' surgery and have Morgan arrested, but Morgan stands his ground. Dreyfoos tries insisting on the arrest, but the Inspector General, revealed to have been a Vietnam war veteran and acknowledging the situation the hospital is facing, spares Morgan and puts Dreyfoos under a congressional hearing, suspending him from the hospital management and terminating his bureaucratic career. Morgan decides to become a permanent resident in Monument Heights as no prosecutions are made and Travis is saved.
Victory is sadly short-lived, as Dreyfoos' unnamed replacement decides to upkeep Dreyfoos' previous policies. Morgan and Sturgess decide to join up and make their stand against the 'new' administration.Ray Liotta as Dr. Richard Sturgess
Kiefer Sutherland as Dr. Peter Morgan
Forest Whitaker as Dr. Sid Handleman
Lea Thompson as Dr. Robin Van Dorn
John C. McGinley as Dr. Rudy Bobrick
John Mahoney as Dr. Henry Dreyfoos
Keith David as Luther Jermoe
Kathy Baker as Dr. Diana Walton
Eli Wallach as Sam Abrams
Troy Evans as Pat Travis
Noble Willingham as Inspector General
Lynne Thigpen as Nurse White
Jeffrey Tambor as Dr. Leo Krutz
Rutanya Alda as Ann Travis
The film was filmed in Kansas City, Missouri. Many downtown landmarks can be seen in the introduction to the movie and throughout, including the Liberty Memorial. The hospital that was used in the film was known as St. Mary's Hospital that sat across the street from Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. The former hospital was slated for demolition in 2004, and razed in 2005 to make way for a new Federal Reserve Bank building.
Kiefer Sutherland in one scene wears glasses and a fisherman's cap pulled over his eyes, which is a tribute to his father, Donald Sutherland, who sported this look in MASH (1970).
The film earned $2.46 million ($4.2 million in today's terms) in its opening weekend (March 13, 1992), screening in 1,262 theaters, and ranking it as the number 6 film of that weekend. It earned a total domestic gross of $6.38 million ($10.9 million in today's terms).
The film has received mixed reviews, currently holding a 46% "rotten" rating on rotten tomatoes based on 13 reviews.