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Brick

Brick

plays out like a high-end student film, fueled by youthful energy and the giddiness that comes from someone finally getting to make their first movie. The film may be raw and flawed but it's appeal lies in the infectious delight filmmaker Rian Johnson takes in riffing on the hard-boiled films he loves.

Brick 's innovation'or if you're more cynical, it's gimmick'is to take the hard-boiled veneer of the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective novels and films, and lay it over the setting of a contemporary California high school. So instead of Sam Spade doggedly pursuing a case, we have the teenaged Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to uncover the mystery surrounding his ex-girlfriend's death. Brick opens with Brendan looking at the motionless body of a young woman lying near a drainage ditch. The woman turns out to be Emily (Emilie DeRaven), Brendan's ex. The film then jumps back in time to two days earlier when Brendan receives a desperate phone call from Emily. She's not very coherent but she seems in need of help. But before she can clarify anything, she panics and hangs up. Now Brendan is determined to find out what's up. He consults the Brain (Matt O'Leary)'an observant student who seems to absorb all the information available on campus'for clues. This leads him to someone known as The Pin (Lukas Haas), a youthful drug lord who may have had something to do with Emily. Complicating things'as you would expect in a film such as this'is a femme fatale. Laura (Nora Zehetner) is dark and dangerous but she puts on a friendly face and offers to help Brendan. But Brendan's strategy is to essentially make himself a human punching bag as he provokes various suspicious types into revealing more than they might want to.

The chief pleasure of Brick is the way Johnson brings the hard-boiled genre into the high school setting. Brendan's tough talk with the school's assistant vice principal (played by Richard Roundtree, the actor who created the character of Shaft) mirrors the way Bogart used to give the lowdown to the dim-witted cops, and having a student talk to an administrator like that is funny. Similarly, there's a great bit where Brendan and the Pin sit down for milk and cookies served by the Pin's Mom. The scene cleverly reminds us that no matter how tough and how grown up these characters may act; they are actually just high school kids. The incongruity proves entertaining.

The film feels very much like a crazy quilt of ideas that Johnson has pulled from a host of film noirs, crime movies and hard-boiled detective tales. Not all the references feel as though they are thought through completely and that hurts the film's plot. The mystery surrounding Emily's death is not cleverly developed nor does it contain ingenious twists and turns that ensnare the viewer. Instead, the film flies along, propelled solely on its own energy and pulls viewers along because it turns out to be a fun ride. But it's not the kind of film that will linger long in your memory or prompt discussions about what it all means.

Johnson's visual style employs occasionally clever framing and editing. He has a nice way of using the frame in some scenes of violence in which the violent action moves out of frame and out of our vision. The violence is even treated at times like a sight gag or pratfall. Johnson also sets up some scenes well. In one sequence, a character nervously tears up some grass as people argue about Emily's death; his violent attack is foreshadowed by a shot in which we see the torn grass float by in the water of the drainage ditch. This lets us know that he's no longer hanging on the sidelines listening, but that he's decided to make his move.

Much has been made of the slang Johnson creates for the characters. This 'slanguage' adds vitality to the dialogue but the emphasis it's been getting in the press puts gives it more attention than it deserves. Occasionally some things are unclear because of slang, but most of the time it's easy to figure out what's going on and the slang just sounds like kids trying to be hip. As for the supposedly obscure meaning of the word 'brick,' that proves to be far too contrived.

The actors have fun with the stylized language and the retro, hard-boiled elements. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become an actor to watch. He may not have left much of an impression as the kid in TV's Third Rock From the Sun , but his recent work in Mysterious Skin and now Brick highlights his skill with both dramatic and comic material. Zehetner is slinky and slippery as the femme fatale Laura but she doesn't approach the delicious duplicity of such classic noir actresses as Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer or Rita Hayworth. In the end, the film is something akin to Bugsy Malone 'Alan Parker's musical reworking of the gangster film with preadolescent stars'it's a novelty piece that entertains.

Brick (rated R for language, drug use, violence and some sexual content) is an entertaining ride from a young filmmaker reveling in his first opportunity to make a film. It doesn't aspire to much more than slick entertainment and it doesn't pretend to be interested in reflecting reality. Johnson's next film will reveal whether or not he's has real talent or is just a flash in the pan. -----

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