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With only a few hours until the new year, Detroit's oldest police station, Precinct 13, is about to close forever. Only a skeleton crew of officers are on duty for New Year's Eve, including Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), veteran officer Jasper (Brian Dennehy), secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo), and psychiatrist Alex (Maria Bello). Roenick is haunted by a botched undercover operation from eight months before that resulted in the death of the other two members of his team.
Meanwhile, crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is arrested after a confrontation results in the death of an undercover officer. Bishop is put on a prison bus with three other criminals: addict Beck (John Leguizamo), petty crook Anna (Aisha Hinds), and counterfeiter Smiley (Ja Rule). A raging snowstorm and treacherous road conditions force the bus driver to make a detour to Precinct 13, where the prisoners are to be held until the storm is over.
New Year's celebrations at the precinct are soon cut short, however, as an intrusion by masked gunmen results in the death of one of the accompanying officers, and injures another. The officers soon find they are surrounded by unknown assailants, preparing to lay siege to the precinct. After one of the attackers throw a brick into the precinct with "Bishop" written on it, Jasper claims they are Bishop's men, here to extract him.
This is proven to be false, however, after Roenick kills one of the attackers in another assault and reclaims the man's wallet, which contained his police badge. Bishop then reveals the attackers are actually policemen, led by corrupt Captain Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne). Previously, Bishop and Duvall were partners in crime, but Duvall got greedy. Now he and his men are to kill Bishop before he can testify at trial.
Heavily outnumbered by a growing police force made up of street cops, snipers, and elite SWAT troopers, Roenick makes the decision to free and arm the prisoners. Although the officers do not trust the criminals, and vice versa, Roenick and Bishop reach an agreement to cooperate in order to stand a chance to survive the night. With their combined efforts, they manage to repel further attacks by the police forces, and reclaim their weapons.
Soon Precinct 13 is joined by another officer, off-duty cop Capra, who miraculously manages to evade sniper fire in order to make it into the building. The attending officers welcome him with open arms, but Beck accuses him of being a plant. He is subdued by Bishop, but is approached by Smiley, who agrees, and the two of them plan an escape.