Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/19/07 16:10:17

"The ape blows or I clam."
5 stars (Awesome)

Is there anyplace left for film noir to go? The quirkily enthralling 'Brick' provides an answer: back to high school.

Brick, a first feature by writer-director Rian Johnson (one of the editors on Lucky McKee's May), recasts the old Dashiell Hammett template as a deadpan playpen for teenagers. I realize how annoyingly twee that sounds -- a costume-party folly like Alan Parker's gangster-kid farce Bugsy Malone. But Brick holds to its glum reality -- it's Sam Spade meets River's Edge. And this film's Spade is a bespectacled teen named Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a soft-featured, recessive boy whose standing apart from the crowd could be taken as shyness. It's actually slyness; Brendan hangs back and takes everyone's measure, and he's unafraid of slapping punks around Bogie-style.

Johnson pushes Brendan into a convoluted plot involving a dead girl, some femmes fatales, and some heroin. This last is pushed by a shadowy figure called The Pin, played by a scruffy Lukas Haas as a twentysomething dandy who surrounds himself with muscled oafs and controls his empire from his mom's panelled basement. (Occasionally, the characters go upstairs to hash out their agendas over brightly colored kiddie-cups of orange juice.) Brendan must find out what happened to the girl -- who once went out with him -- while playing both sides against the middle and stringing along the school's vice principal (Richard Roundtree). Down these mean hallways a kid must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid...

Oh, did I mention Brick has its own language? It speaks fluent hard-boiled, evoking the memory of vintage pulp verbally the way Sin City did visually. Brendan punches out a spiky-haired dweeb, then turns to the dweeb's confederates and rattles off, "Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night; that puts me six up on the lot of you." Brendan's way of telling The Pin that there'll be no conversation while Pin's muscle is in the room is "The ape blows or I clam." You either accept this or you don't, and I wouldn't blame you if you don't, but I took it as a pleasingly stylized route to noir's heart. "Accelerated English," says Brendan when the vice principal compliments him on his turn of phrase. The rhetoric of noir is accelerated English, all right, a gat rat-a-tatting invective. Brick uses it beautifully, as a plausible extrapolation of how teens invent their own lingo to block out adults.

On some level 'Brick' is a stunt, but so is every new movie that tries to re-invent noir; and on some level, even the old noir films were stunts (think of 1947's 'Lady in the Lake,' filmed entirely from Philip Marlowe's POV). But after a while you're drawn into the story, the way you always are, and the milieu seems like a weird hybrid reality, or alternate universe, or something. Whatever it is, wherever it is, whenever it is, it's not remotely like anything else out there.

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