- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

Most teenagers these days have probably never heard of film noir, let alone seen an example of it. But it won’t keep them from enjoying “Brick,” a modern-day homage to the genre that saw its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Brick” is writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut feature. While it has the raw feel of a first effort, it is suffused with love of both filmmaking and the incredible variety of American personality.

The plot will be familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett: A troubled soul investigating the death of a beautiful blonde ends up uncovering more than he bargained for, shaking up heavies, a criminal mastermind, and a gorgeous femme fatale along the way. In this case, though, the world-weary protagonist out for some kind of justice is still in high school. Think “The Big Sleep” peopled by the cast of “Dawson’s Creek.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the “son” in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” plays Brendan Frye with a steely determination. With ex-girlfriend Emily’s murder, he’s lost the only thing he cared about; what can a few thugs do to him now?

Conveniently, the freaks and stoners at his Southern California school aren’t always hard to get the better of. “I got all five senses and I slept last night, so that puts me about six up on the lot of you,” Brendan sneers, in a line that could have been written for Humphrey Bogart.

Like Bogie, Brendan attracts not only the damsel in distress but a couple of dangerous dames, too. Nora Zehetner, who plays one of them, knows how to work a camera. Her Laura first appears on-screen singing a sultry version of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” The young people who are the film’s ostensible target demographic won’t recognize the words. But Miss Zehetner’s confidence on-screen is unmistakable. It’s almost a pleasure to watch her go from bad girl to worse.

This high-school noir feels surreal at times. There’s a priceless scene in which Brendan faces Tolkien-loving drug lord the Pin (Lukas Haas) across a bowl of cornflakes at the Pin’s mom’s kitchen table. But only very rarely does the film feel like watching children play dress-up: Rather than force his of-the-moment teenage characters into contexts borrowed from the 50-year-old movies that inspired him, Mr. Johnson takes his young Southern California milieu on its own terms.

Classic noir always had a distinctive lingo, for example. So does “Brick,” but it’s a modern slang that fits right into its Southern California setting. “Who’s she eating with?” Brendan asks when he wants to know with whom Emily’s been hanging out.

“Brick” may feature actors and actresses from popular television shows like “Everwood” and “Lost,” but its clever use of the elements of a classic genre makes it something that will last longer than those shows can ever hope to.

***

TITLE: “Brick”

RATING: R for violent and drug content

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rian Johnson

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.brickmovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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