Hardboiled ’30s detective fiction invades a SoCal high school with moderately tasty results in “Brick.” At its core, writer-director Rian Johnson’s first feature is a stunt, putting Dashiell Hammett-like tough-guy vernacular into the mouths of contempo teens. But the story, while derivative, isn’t half bad, and the picture gains in finesse and confidence to the point where Johnson more or less pulls off his peril-fraught exercise. Distinctive lingo provides a talking point, and youthful cast creates possibilities for some theatrical payoff.
Johnson was inspired to write “Brick” after a reading binge of Hammett’s work, and fans will easily detect plot elements from “Red Harvest,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Glass Key” and possibly other Hammett tales.
At first, it is mildly disconcerting to hear ’30s slang (“Why’d you take a powder the other night?”) and recycled detective dialogue being spouted by casual-looking California teenagers, and for a while pic sits uncomfortably on a fence barely separating the unusual from the merely affected. Eventually, however, the mode of delivery becomes downright refreshing, as it forces the kids to speak in crisp, precise and extremely articulate complete sentences rather than in lazy slacker style endlessly punctuated by “um” and “like.”
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As with many a good mystery, this one begins with a dead body, that of Emily, the ex-girlfriend of outsiderish student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), found lying in a isolated creek. Although they were out of touch, Brendan received a brief, hysterical call from Emily the day before her body was found, and he makes it his business to get to the bottom of her murder.
Assuming the guise of an implacable private dick, Brendan begins deep penetration of the high-school social scene he has heretofore gone to considerable lengths to avoid. The characters he goes through to get to the truth (none of them nearly as colorful as those found in actual Hammett tales) include the theatrically predatory Kara (Meagan Good); pot-addled hipster Dode (Noah Segan), whom Brendan slaps around in a reasonable imitation of what Bogart did with aplomb; muscle-bound thug Tugger (Noah Fleiss), and queen bitch Laura (Nora Zehetner).
Coming closer to the Hammett ideal is the most mysterious character, the Pin (an excellent Lukas Haas), a thin, cane-wielding drug dealer who still lives at home with Mother. Several scenes between Brendan and the Pin bristle with tension and banter that is less evident elsewhere. Climax reps a direct lift from one of Hammett’s most famous yarns.
To his credit, Johnson steers clear of aping film noir style, going the other way by setting the action in an airy, sparsely populated San Clemente, on the California coast south of Los Angeles, and having lenser Steve Yedlin shoot mostly wide-angle lenses. Pic’s palette is rather thin, dominated by blues and grays, although there are some very nice old-fashioned, Michael Curtiz-style camera dollies in toward characters.
Perfs are uneven, with the men coming off much better than the women. Crucially, Gordon-Levitt handles the unusual dialogue well and increases in conviction and strength as the tale unfolds.