"Brick" tries to update the film noir template with a murder set among high schoolers in modern suburbia.
Thugs, femmes fatale, stoolies, a shamus who can take a beating and repay it with interest, dialogue spoken in snappy underworld slang. Rian Johnson's "Brick" borrows a lot from the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, anachronistically recasting their crime stories with modern-day suburban California teens. The fact that the results are only half-ludicrous is a sort of triumph.
Johnson's debut as writer/director, the film won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for "originality of vision," but "novelty" would be truer. "Brick" works well enough, re-engineering the familiar ground rules of film noir mysteries. It has insolent wit, a taut style and strong characterizations. But it lacks the special quality needed to make a movie spring to life, a divine spark of real imagination.
Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a whip-smart outsider who infiltrates his San Clemente high school's drug underworld as he investigates the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His suspects include upper crust party girl Laura, hotdog jock Brad, teasing drama queen Kara and the Pin, a ruthless dope runner who conducts crime business at his mom's dinner table while she innocently provides cookies and juice.
Gordon-Levitt, who played the kid in the TV sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun," delivers a rock-solid performance, which is remarkable in the face of the hardboiled 1930s slang he's required to speak. In a confrontation with a by-the-book vice principal ("Shaft's" Richard Roundtree) that echoes the detective-vs.-police-captain shouting matches we've seen in a hundred films, he barks, "You got a discipline issue with me? Write me up or suspend me!" Even when the film winks at the audience, he commendably plays Brendan straight.
Brendan unveils the students' secrets using brains when he can, and fists when he has to. The film teems with tense scenes of physical peril. There's also an edgy note of emotional anxiety as Brendan probes deeper into his lost love's other affairs.
It's these issues that give "Brick" its most powerful moments. Sex and death are the great unknowns of adolescence. Teens fixate on their mysteries as if they hold the keys to adulthood. Only later do they recognize sex doesn't bring maturity and death is never really understood. Brendan gets to the bottom of his case, but the fade-out shows he's nowhere near solving the big questions.