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Bad boys, whatcha gonna do? 

Spielberg blends style with substance in Minority Report

It's John Ashcroft's dream and the ACLU's nightmare: a futuristic America in which the cops can arrest perpetrators of crimes before they actually commit them. In Minority Report, impeccable peace officer John Anderton (Tom Cruise) has no doubts about the Precrime law enforcement system or its three genetically altered oracles, led by an ethereal Samantha Morton. That is, until the "precogs" predict that Anderton will murder a complete stranger within 36 hours.

The majority of Minority represents an ideal wedding of style and substance. Steven Spielberg directs a production that brilliantly extrapolates the police surveillance, and even marketing techniques, of Washington, D.C., a half-century from now. Instant retinal scanners allow billboards to pitch products to passersby by name. Mechanical spiders use the same technology to sweep a building for the fugitive Anderton in the film's most chilling sequence. Science erases privacy in the name of security, while the Precrime concept leads to debates over guilt, innocence and predetermination.

Like Blade Runner, another visionary film inspired by the fiction of Philip K. Dick, Minority Report views tomorrow through a lens of 1940s-style film noir. The narrative choice leads to some superbly moody, filtered cinematography, but also gives license to some highly mannered character acting, with Tim Blake Nelson's wormy warden, Lois Smith's eccentric scientist and Peter Stormare's black-market sawbones coming across like asylum inmates, and not credible citizens -- or even drop-outs -- of this society.

As Anderton races to avoid capture and discover his destiny, Spielberg makes whiplash changes in tone. A fight in a Lexus factory closely follows a similar Attack of the Clones set piece, a gross-out sight gag proves worthy of the Farrelly brothers, and the drawn-out denouement backpedals furiously from the film's darker implications.

In Minority Report, Cruise's rote explorations of Anderton's character aren't as engaging as Spielberg's continued evolution as a director. He continues to strive for a style that's more mature and less purely manipulative -- and compared to last year's A.I., the dispassionate Stanley Kubrick influence is both more subtle and more effective. Yet he lacks a sure hand with the kind of surreal exaggerations and religious imagery associated with Federico Fellini, and those scenes hinder the movie's considerable momentum. So the report is this: Spielbrick, yes; Spiellini, no.

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