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Spielberg and Cruise make "Minority Report" a gripping, fast-paced, thrilling bit of futuristic film noir.

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Directing with verve and imagination equal to his breathtaking "Close Encounters" bravura, Spielberg captures both the idealist in us and the voyeur. On some subconscious level we know what we're watching is just some fevered futuristic bit of Dickian paranoia. In the hands of Spielberg, it becomes a knockout punch of future shock and wishful thinking that ultimately remains unnerving and unsettling.

But best of all, "Minority Report" is just so darn entertaining. Even for those not usually drawn to the sci-fi genre.

In the year 2054 in Washington, murderers are apprehended before they commit the crime, thanks to some highly empathetic individuals with precognition. Called "precogs," these future-seeing predictors of deviant human behavior "sense" the coming crimes — be they murder or rape or both. Kept away from the population at large, precogs live and are cared for in a complex techno-lab devised by one Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow).

Chief John Aderton (Tom Cruise) runs this elite Pre-Crime unit, using the visions from the top three precog psychics as evidence for his group's preemptive arrests. The most gifted of Aderton's trio of trusted precogs is Agatha (Samantha Morton). But Aderton is a man on a mission. He lost a small son six years before and, haunted by the crime, buries himself in preventing others. Then suddenly, the precogs insist he will murder a stranger within 36 hours, forcing him to run from his own unit. A rival FBI agent (Colin Farrell) soon is hot on our hero's trail, that pursuit made all the easier because Aderton's magnetic-levitation car can be controlled by others and tracked by scanners throughout the city that use the driver's own eyes as transmitters.

As Aderton races against the clock to figure out why he would kill a total stranger — or is he being set up? — he also must noodle out how this is tied to his past, his boss (Sydow), his estranged wife (Kathryn Morris) and the research scientist who developed the precogs (Lois Smith).

Spielberg and company create several amazing set pieces — action scenes one can only imagine the likes of Spielberg being able to pull off: an incredible chase scene around the mean streets of Washington, D.C., circa 2054 and into a robotics car factory; and later, a scene where Cruise breaks into Pre-Crime headquarters to kidnap Agatha (Morton), who Cruise's character believes might hold the key to his future. "Minority Report" also has more than a few moments of visceral, gee-whiz pleasures — such as the scene where Aderton chases his own eyeballs down a corridor.

Although Cruise anchors the movie (after all he is the hero), Morton turns in another amazing performance. Shorn of hair and eyebrows, she is a frail, ethereal figure, waiflike for sure and yet strong-willed, determined to have a hand in deciding her own fate. Farrell is equally impressive and oily as the agent bent on bringing in renegade killer-to-be Aderton.

On the technical side, longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams work hard to complement the action and further the narrative. Williams provides a score so subtle and perfect it mirrors the music Bernard Herrmann did for Hitchcock, here creating tension and suspense without his trademark lush, symphonic orchestrations. As for Kaminski, he handles the movie's futuristic blue tint as a desaturated, dehumanized color that links the very different worlds of those mean streets and the womblike precog chamber.

The moral issues explored by "Minority Report" are tried-and-true, and Spielberg thankfully keeps the preachiness of his tale to a bare minimum. Best of all, Spielberg avoids the warm-and-fuzzy sci-fi of his early career. There's no schmaltzy ending (even if it's a little trite), allowing us to emerge from the dark consumed with our own thoughts about what we just experienced. "Minority Report" ends up being what the filmmaker intended it to be: a heart-pounding, provocative thriller for anyone who loves to see the characters doing the right thing against all odds. This is genuine escapist entertainment. S

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