Jonathan Pryce stars as Sam Lowry, a faceless civil servant in a massive futuristic bureaucracy. In this world, the grinding wheels of the state manage everything, as long as the paperwork is in order – although the technology often doesn't work and there's never anyone to complain to. Sam dreams of being free – of flying away from drudgery and bureaucracy to become a great hero with wings. He also dreams about a mysterious but beautiful woman that his hero-self can save. However, in general, Sam does as he's expected to do, even if he doesn't always know why.
Sam's safe life starts to come apart, however, when he sees his dream girl looking down at him through a hole in the ceiling during an arrest. Then he spots a mistake in the arrest paperwork and follows up on the administrative error. It would seem that a Mr Buttle has been arrested accidentally instead of Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a maverick heating engineer on the run from the state. While trying to rectify the wrongful arrest, Sam finally meets his dream girl Jill Layton (Kim Greist). When Sam's air conditioning breaks down in his apartment, he also gets to meet the anarchic heating engineer Tuttle. A confused Sam now finds himself being accused by the state as being behind a spate of terrorist bombings.