In the 21st century, information is the ultimate commodity. The most valuable of information is transported in intracranial implants in the heads of professional mnemonic couriers like Johnny (Keanu Reeves - Speed) who offer both security and confidentiality for the right price.
But Johnny has paid a heavy price of his own - He's dumped his own memories to make room for the programmes he smuggles. To buy them back he agrees to deliver priceless data, the most important data of the 21st century, data that has already set an army of professional killers on his trail. but the massive upload is too much for his brain and johnny must find the secret codes to download the information - or die.
Intro pre-title, 2nd decade of 21st century. Scrolling script sets up the story, Loteks vs. corporations, and elite agents who smuggle data by wet-wired brain implants. A new disease, NAS -- Nerve Attenuation Syndrome -- commonly called the "Black Shakes" has infected much of the world's population. NAS is fatal and no cure has been found.
A man (Keanu Reeves) awakes at 10:30 am, Thursday 17 Jan 2021. An attractive woman dresses as he scans thru the TV channels. After she leaves he uses the TV to dial a man Ralfi (Udo Kier), they have a video conversation. Johnny needs $1.5M to remove the implant device and return to normal but has to do one more courier run.
In Central Beijing Johnny gets out of a cab in the midst of a riot. He enters a posh hotel and goes up an elevator. Taking a small device from his pocket he inserts a wired tether into a socket in his head and watches as the progress bar formats his head with a memory doubler and a voice warning he can only handle 160 GB safely.
Entering a room full of Asians he is greeted by pointed weapons. The young men in charge admit they are new at hiring a data courier. Johnny installs a motion detector on the door as the men discuss his memory limits. This trip will require 320 GB but Johnny acts nonplussed.
Downstairs an ominous group of black coated Yakuza prepare to enter the elevator. Johnny sets up his upload equipment and instructs the clients to take three video screen shots as the counter approaches zero. Putting on a dark visor over his eyes and a mouth guard the painful data upload begins. The client presses the screen shot device 3 times as the data stream ends, and three photos come out of a small printer. Johnny excuses himself to the toilet as one of the men goes to fax the photos to the end user in Newark, NJ. The photos are the encryption key to enable the data download.
In the washroom Johnny has a slight bloody nose and he tidies up. Meanwhile the Yakuza charge into the room and start shooting. The leader has a monofilament wire whip that slices thru anything. Johnny outfights one assailant in the washroom. In the main room fight the three photo strip is sliced in two and the fax transmission is interrupted. The Yakuza leader Takahashi (Takeshi Kitano) recovers half the photo strip, the other half is burned. Johnny manages to escape but the clients are all killed.
At the airport a security scanner detects Johnny's implant but it is listed as an approved dyslexia device by the Federal government. The scanner also detects a potential medical problem, synaptic leakage, and issues a verbal warning.
In an office in Newark, Takahashi greets a rich man Shinji (Dennis Akayama) and tells him the courier, Johnny escaped. Shinji accepts the partial photo key and dismisses the Yakuza.
In a cab Johnny calls Ralfi, he is furious at the blown deal and demands to know what is going on. At a busy night club a man Spider (Henry Rollins) meets a woman Jane (Dina Meyer) and they discuss her medical condition. She then approaches Ralfi, sitting a table with his henchmen. Jane attempts to show her ability as a bodyguard. Ralfi makes her show steady her hands are as she suffers from the Black Shakes.
The cab drops Johnny off in a dark alley. Observers, J-Bone (Ice-T) and aide, above detect the memory implant but leaves him alone. Johnny meets two armed men but when threatened with decapitation, escapes the building. In a confrontation outside J-Bone helps Johnny kill the two. Johnny then goes to confront Ralfi claiming he was set up, but is taken from behind with a knockout drug.
Janes sees the henchmen carry the unconscious Johnny away. In a room Johnny is strapped to a bed as Ralfi gloats, Takahashi is there as they are prepared to remove the memory device. Jane is in the ceiling above and drops down and fights off Ralfi's gang. Johnny is cut loose and joins the fight and they escape. Takahashi slices Ralfi's upper torso in frustration. Outside J-Bone and several cronies protect Johnny and Jane as they stand-off the Yakuza.
Johnny and Jane get away thru a deserted subway tunnel. Jane wants to get paid, Johnny has a severe head pain episode.
Shinji dresses and watches a video of a young girl. The video is interrupted as an ethereal woman's face (Barbara Sukowa) comes on and tells him the courier's data can give him new purpose in life.
Back in the tunnel Johnny asks for help to get the data out of his head. He admits he had to dump some of his own childhood memories to make space for the uploaded data. Johnny wants to get out of the courier business, and wants a computer. They break into an electronics store and Johnny gears up with a VR visor and gloves. In a 3D display environment he tracks down the fax number from the Beijing hotel room. The local Newark number is for a Dr. Allcome. An IT tech notices the hack and informs Takahashi of Johnny's location. As the cars approach Johnny chats online with a head figure who mentions PharmaKom is behind it. Once again Johnny and Jane escape.
In the PharmaKom skyscraper Shinji makes a video call to a Street Preacher(Dolph Lundgren) a cross and candles pseudo cleric, and offers him a contract to get Johnny's head.
At a phone booth Johnny hacks into the phone system with a repairman's device and offers the 320 GB of info to PharmaKom, hoping they will negotiate. Jane then goes into spasms and has a seizure, she still manages to direct Johnny to Spider. At a dark isolated warehouse Spider lets them in, he rants about information overload but begins to examine Jane. J-Bone and his cronies observe Street P striding down the street.
Shinji gets a briefing about the woman's face in his video, she is Anna Kalmann, she died in 2015 and had been imprinted into a computer in Switzerland and is now a "ghost in the machine", advising the company from her present state.
Johnny explains his situation to Spider. Street P approaches the bartender Hooky (Don Francks) and freezes his prosthetic hand in a liquid, torturing him to find out where Jane is.
Spider stabilizes Jane and scans Johnny. Spider is not very confident, Johnny convinces Spider to drive them to Dr. Allcome. Driving away they run over Street Preacher. In a crowded makeshift hospital Spider tells them Dr. Allcome is merely an emergency code word, the fax was meant for them, the NAS Underground. Spider hooks Johnny up to another device and reads the data in his brain. He offers to remove the implant but it would have some severe adverse effects. The data is the cure for NAS, which can save millions of people. Johnny refuses the removal. Suddenly the Street Preacher enters and causes havoc. Spider is tortured by the Preacher but Johnny and Jane manage to run away just after Spider tells Jane to get Johnny
Calling PharmaKom again Johnny offers to meet at the bridge, Landfill 5. He is talking to Shinji who is using a Anglo-saxon avatar to talk to Johnny. As Shinji hangs up the face of Anna Kalmann reappears warning him he is running out of time.
Johnny and Jane arrive by garbage truck under the bridge, two guards watch them. A burning car falls and they narrowly dodge it. Johnny loses it and rants about his desire for normalcy. J-Bone descends beside them in an elevator device. Johnny begins to have flash episodes and collapses as the three ascend to the bridge deck, the busy Lotek HQ.
Back at Pharmakom Shinji prepares a katana sword and pistol and directs an aide to have Takahashi meet at the bridge. At the bridge Jane comforts Johnny and the two kiss. J-bone takes them to a work area with several stacked video monitors and a dolphin, Jones himself, in a glass tank. The Loteks send out encrypted data to the world. The white dolphin is rigged up with a helmet and wires and is to be used as the codebreaker. Takahashi and a large squad of Yakuza soldiers arrive below the bridge.
Johnny is hesitant to link with the dolphin but finally agrees to put on the wired headpiece. The Yakuza use personal ascenders to raise themselves up. Shinji arrives by helicopter. The Yakuza start killing the guards. Johnny has a painful experience as the dolphin slowly tries to finds the encryption key. A woman with a shoulder launched missile launcher fires at the bridge from below until J-bone shoots her with a crossbow.
The codebreaking is interrupted with the fighting with only one picture resolved. Shinji confronts Johnny with a pistol and sword. Anna Kalmann appears on the monitors, in a fury Shinji slices through a wire bundle. Takahashi shoots Shinji in the back and approaches Johnny with his wire device. Jane starts a distracting fight and Johnny tries to flee, chased by the Japanese man. They fall through wreckage and hang by their fingers high above the river. Johnny manages to get control of the monofilament wire device and kills Takahashi.
Back on top Johnny meets a dying Shinji who gives him the half of the photo strip key. Street Preacher arrives and in a wild fight Jane and Johnny manage to defeat the big man, burning him alive. Johnny gives J-Bone the pictures and prepares to link with the dolphin again. Ann Kalmann comes on again and appeals to Johnny. J-Bone broadcasts to the world the cure is coming and the final painful data download commences. At the end of the data stream Johnny faints but recovers quickly. J-Bone, Johnny and Jane look out onto the lights of the city with the PharmaKom tower in flames in the distance.