The film takes place within the notoriously rough Brownsville section of Brooklyn and especially within the Van Dyke housing projects in the NYPD's 65th precinct. Three policemen struggle with the sometimes fine line between right and wrong.
The opening scene shows two men sitting in a parked car having a conversation, the man in the drivers seat, Carlo (Vincent D'Onofrio) is then shot unexpectedly in the face by the passenger (revealed to be Sal) who then robs Carlo and runs off.
Detective Salvatore "Sal" Procida (Ethan Hawke), desperate for money to feed and house his rapidly growing family, has started pocketing the money left on the table during drug raids. Deeply religious, he finds that he's in the bad place of trying to reconcile his misdeeds with his needs. The mold in the walls of his home is making his wife (Lili Taylor) ill and endangering the life of his unborn twins. And the down payment on his coveted new, bigger house is past due.
Officer Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) is a week from retirement after twenty-two years of less-than-exemplary service to the force when he's assigned to oversee rookies in the tough neighborhoods. His life in shambles, Eddie is barely hanging on, swilling whiskey in the morning to get out of bed. His only friend is a prostitute he frequents.
Detective Clarence "Tango" Butler (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop working the drug beat. But he tires of the kind of attention that a black man in a black car attracts, and he's been begging for a promotion and a desk job for years. He's finally offered a way out and it means betraying a close friend Caz, a known criminal (Wesley Snipes) recently released from federal prison.