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Steven Spielberg just might turn into a great director if only he'd stop sabotaging his movies. For the second time in as many films, he demolishes his product with a third act that renders all that's come before it void. It's as though Minority Report, set in a near future where people travel by jet packs and magnetic cars that skitter up the sides of buildings, had its feet dipped in quick-dry concrete just before it crossed the finish line. It can barely move during its final half-hour, which is a shame, because until then it's a frenetic, engaging ride -- a huge grin, not unlike the one Tom Cruise now hides behind his grownup's braces.

After last summer's bummer, A.I. -- with which Minority Report shares a handful of themes and ideas, chief among them the way a husband and wife deal with the disappearance of a child -- Minority Report feels almost like a relief, a huge sigh expelled after the director shook the heavy ghost of Stanley Kubrick off his back. You can almost see the director beaming behind the camera, so excited is he to play with new toys (animated cereal boxes and newspaper front pages, cell phones the size of a quarter, eye-recognition software, police-issued "sick sticks" that render a renegade extremely nauseous) and an actor built for speed in Cruise. Those who dismiss Cruise as a blank slate, as more movie star than actor, often fail to recognize that it's his very nothingness that makes him so engaging. He's never more believable than when playing someone who's absolutely lost and out of place.

The screenplay, by Scott Frank (Out of Sight) and novice Jon Cohen, remains true to the original Philip K. Dick story only in spirit. The hero of the original story, a good cop being forced out of his job by an unctuous and ambitious comer, introduces himself as "bald and fat and old," the antithesis of Cruise's John Anderton. That's fine, and it's also a shame. Dick's story knew where to end -- around the time Dick, whose stories have inspired such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, and this year's Impostor, proffered the notion that there's no such thing as free will. Spielberg's version says just the opposite, and it's a feel-good sentiment curiously and awkwardly affixed to yet another Spielberg movie just begging to feel awful.

The movie, set in the year 2054, retains only Dick's premise. In the near future, three precognitives (including one played by Sweet and Lowdown's Samantha Morton) can detect a murder before it happens. These orphans, the grown children of junkies, float in a tank of water, marinating in deep thought. Their visions -- which Anderton sorts through the way John Williams conducts an orchestra, dismissing the effluvia to get to the good stuff with the well-choreographed sweep of a hand -- are all the evidence Anderton's Pre-Crime Division needs to convict. Though no crime has actually been committed, these criminals (or precriminals, if you will) are banished to a storage facility, piled one atop the other like so much cordwood -- or so many caskets. That labyrinth, run by Gideon (O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s Tim Blake Nelson), looks like the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark's finale (or, yes, Citizen Kane). It's a dazzling vision, just one grand joke in a film overflowing with movie parodies and pop-culture sight gags, including a few set in a shopping mall blaring "Moon River" from its PA system.

Anderton's a true believer in the system, a driven boss and well-managed wreck. He blames himself for the disappearance and death of his son, which ruined his marriage and rendered him a fanatical cop by day and a drug addict by night. He huffs an inhaler offering "clarity," then cues up three-dimensional home movies of his long-lost family; for just a moment he's whole again, a stoner kept company by vestigial memories.

But the fanatic becomes the hunted when Anderton is accused of a murder the precogs insist he will commit. That's when the movie finally takes off, as Anderton has to run not only from his colleagues -- including his superior, played by Max von Sydow -- but also Detective Witwer (Colin Farrell), a smirky government official bent on running Pre-Crime. Minority Report becomes one long, capricious chase through Washington, D.C.'s back alleys, through a Lexus factory, into the seedy digs of a disgraced eye doctor (Peter Stormare, starring in his third film in as many weeks), through a Gap store blaring Billie Holiday, and into an outlaw fun factory where patrons can have virtual sex or commit virtual murder. Spielberg insists the nightmarish middle section of A.I., with its horrific Flesh Fair and carnal Rouge City, was his true contribution to that movie. Minority Report, so much of which is covered in grime and smut, fleshes out that obsession with the deviant fetishes of the seemingly normal.

The first two-thirds of Minority Report are such a good time that what happens at film's end doesn't quite obliterate it. The echoes still resonate, even when the director and screenwriters try to drown them out with ridiculous plot twists and an ending the movie (and audience) doesn't deserve. Spielberg's grown up (you get the sense he's dying to make a really dirty movie), but he's still somehow stunted: He wants you to leave the theater smiling, but not thinking very hard.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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