Sgt. Jake Roenick has decided to sit out the rest of his police career behind a desk. He’s haunted by an undercover drug bust gone bad that resulted in the death of his two partners. That's how it falls on him to shut down the decrepit police headquarters of Precinct 13 on New Year’s Eve.
His secretary, Iris, and partner, Jasper, decide to stay with him to welcome in the new year. But they soon find themselves with unexpected company: storm-stranded prisoners. Among them is Marion Bishop, a notorious crime lord and accused cop killer. The others are Beck, a hyped-up speed dealer and pseudo-philosopher; Smiley, master of fake Rolexes and other counterfeit products; and Anna, who claims she’s never committed a crime in her life but later proves quite handy with firearms and the ability to hotwire a car in seconds. Also present for the "festivities" (because her car gets stuck in the snow near the building) is Dr. Alex Sabian, the police department psychiatrist, whom Jake has been seeing ever since the tragedy.
Suddenly, mysterious masked men sneak into the building and kill one of the guards in a shootout before retreating. Phone lines have been cut, radio and cell phone frequencies are jammed. Through the windows, Jake and his friends see shadowy masked figures moving through the snowstorm, surrounding the building.
Since there aren't enough "friendlies" to guard the building, Jake decides to arm the prisoners to fight off what turns out to be a mutual enemy—a band of very well-armed and -trained (and very corrupt) SWAT cops.
When Jasper wants to release Bishop to the crooked cops, Jake refuses, saying that everyone in the building is his responsibility and that he must protect them to the best of his ability. He later puts himself in danger in an effort to get help. Despite being terrified, Dr. Sabian also risks her life to save the others.
In a backdoor way, Bishop teaches a lesson on the power of sin to slowly corrode and corrupt character. As the leader of the corrupt cops prepares to execute Bishop, the crime lord taunts him: “Before you couldn’t even look me in the eye. You were one of those God-fearing types. Now you look me in the eye and you’re going to shoot me without a moment’s hesitation.”
A scene is set during a Roman Catholic Mass; the priest’s homily is about the power of moral choice and the importance of thinking through consequences before acting. The dirty cops use that church service to rendezvous with Bishop to try to extort more money out of him. One cop mocks, “You think you’d tell the truth with God watching.” Bishop states that he doesn’t believe in God: “Many times I’ve seen men staring death in the face and pleading for their lives. Since God never saved them, I’ve concluded he doesn’t exist.”
Realizing he’s being set up, Bishop stabs the cop in the neck with a pen just as the congregation begins singing “Amazing Grace.” A shoot-out ensues.
Iris, who's dressed in an extremely short skirt, cleavage-baring blouse and fishnet stockings, is obsessed with sex. She says, “We always get it on whenever we can. Compulsive sex is in our genes.” She also jokes that she prefers sex with “bad boys” and perks up at the news that a group of prisoners is being housed at their jail for the night. She describes having sex in the left-field bleachers during a Detroit Tigers game.
For the bulk of the film, Dr. Sabian is dressed in a short, cleavage-baring party dress. During a counseling session, Jake makes a half-joking sexual taunt toward Dr. Sabian. Even though her dress (in this scene) is prim and professional, she counters by saying her clothes are a form of seduction. She adds, “If I wanted to have sex with you, it would have happened already.”
A female undercover cop wears very low-cut jeans and a skimpy, elastic top. Bishop tells Iris that the ancient Greeks considered sex and death interrelated, since sex is a way of nullifying the fear of death.
Extreme, frequent and bloody. Aside from the almost constant gunplay once the siege starts, we see blood gushing from a wounded cop’s abdomen. A drug dealer is shot in the head, with blood spurting from the wound. A man is killed by being stabbed in the eye with an icicle. Two of the prisoners kill a corrupt cop by beating him with a baseball bat and stabbing him repeatedly with a sword from the evidence locker.
Two men are set afire with Molotov cocktails. Blood sprays through a bullet hole in a cop’s helmet. A SWAT cop is shot in the face, and the camera lingers as his goggles fill with blood. Several other characters are also shot in the head, stabbed or blown up, and the camera treats them the same way.
A car crashes into a light pole at high speed, and another flips through the air when its tires are shot out. A man is dropped with a violent elbow punch to the throat. A man viciously punches a dog to get it to stop barking. Bishop tells Iris how to kill a man by crushing his Adam’s apple; she later puts the advice to use.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When his partners died in the drug bust, Jake was wounded in the leg. He uses that as an excuse to mask his physical—and mental—pain with prescription painkillers and booze. Sometimes washing the former down with the latter.
All the police officers and sheriff’s guards are technically on duty, yet they drink alcohol at the party. Jasper brings a case of booze into the office where he throws away the cap of the first bottle he opens, saying, “We won’t need that anymore.” Iris uses an obscene euphemism for getting drunk, saying, “Let’s get f---ed up early.”
Iris vows to give up smoking for the New Year, but several other characters, including Jake, smoke. During a drug bust a man samples what appears to be either cocaine or heroin.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake of a 1976 movie of the same name by John Carpenter, who would go on to make other gorefests such as the Halloween series, Escape From L.A. and Vampires. The 1976 version is itself a rip-off of 1959’s Rio Bravo, which starred John Wayne as a beleaguered Wild West sheriff fighting off a gang of bad guys trying to bust out their jailed boss.
In the story's first two outings, those guarding the jail were clearly the good guys, despite personal flaws. In the new version Ethan Hawke’s Sgt. Roenick is clearly a good and heroic cop, despite being troubled by personal demons, but Laurence Fishburne’s Marion Bishop is one bad dude—and that’s the problem. As with many recent movies (Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Walking Tall, The Punisher, The Chronicles of Riddick), the audience is encouraged to root for a bad guy who’s fighting badder guys. The sense that bad character and bad actions aren't mitigated by later “good” behavior is completely missing. And that leads to a final disappointing development. [Spoiler Warning] After the corrupt cops have been defeated and a wounded Jake is being rescued by other police officers, he has an opportunity to have Bishop arrested. Yet he doesn’t tell his rescuers that the crime lord has only about a minute’s head start on them. Why? Because Bishop saved his life. That's a plot twist that will assault audiences' moral worldview every bit as much as the film's out-of-control vulgarity and violence.