4 stars


11th July 2006

A classic film noir detective story, performed by American high school kids - you'd be forgiven for thinking that Brick sounds terrible, because it does. In the wrong hands, Rian Johnson's teen crime thriller could have been a Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle complete with thirty year-olds masquerading as high school kids, spouting a Kevin Williamson script and getting into mildly distressing 12A scrapes. Thankfully, with Johnson's assured direction and a cast that wouldn't be seen dead in the pages of Now! magazine, Brick is a fantastically executed and impossibly cool piece of pulp fiction that somehow manages to shake off a potentially fatal gimmick to hold its own against the best modern crime thrillers.

Brendan Frye (Levitt) is your classic high school moper: quiet, bespectacled and with his hands sunk deep in his jacket pocket at all times - basically your average, unassuming, shadow-lurking nerd. When his girlfriend Emily (de Ravin) goes missing, he receives an incomprehensible phone call from her shortly before she's found dead. With a blatant disregard for education, Brendan skips school to find her killer, getting embroiled in a seedy underworld of drug dealing, turf wars and crime lords in the process. This is classic, Raymond Chandler-esque stuff: the bespectacled informant, the femme fatale, the toe-headed mobster and the shady kingpin are all present and correct. Imagine a teenage Humphrey Bogart on a mission to find out who wedgied the milk monitor in recess and you're halfway to understanding Brick's concept.

It's certainly not for everyone. Anyone hoping for impossibly gorgeous teens getting into romantic shenanigans before class will be sorely disappointed - Brick's central premise is faintly ridiculous, sure, but it's played straight as a ruler and the tension is never pricked by comedy born from its surroundings. (Case in point: when the going gets tough, Brendan calls in the big guns - not the police, but the school Vice Principal, played deadpan by Richard Roundtree, aka Shaft, in an inspired piece of casting). Another big turn-off might be the way the characters converse, like they're reading from a film noir glossary circa 1941. Cops are 'bulls', drugs are 'jake', to slip away unnoticed is to 'take a powder' - it can be confusing and it's easy to miss large chunks of dialogue as you're still busy trying to translate the last few incomprehensible sentences. That's not to say that it's not an effective technique, however; characters chat away about bricks, pins and reef worms like it's the most natural thing in the world, leaving you content that, even if you haven't got a bloody clue what they're talking about, at least they do.

The young cast is where Brick really builds on its foundations. Best known for playing the lank-haired brat in TV sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, Joseph Gordon Levitt makes for a magnificent hero. With a shaggy mess of curls cascading over his glasses and his drainpipe jeans setting off a pair of scuffed brogues, he might not look like your classic private dick, but this cat packs a punch and isn't afraid to shake down the football jocks or the local dope heads to get the information he wants. Lukas Haas lends another dimension to the sinister figure of The Pin; he simmers with the threat of violence (if not a physical presence) yet he still operates out of his mother's basement. De Ravin gets no more screen time than your average Lost episode but she still manages to impress, exuding a cute vulnerability that makes it obvious why Brendan should want to protect her. It's a largely unknown cast which serves Brick so well; while other teen movies parade around an identikit bunch of OC cuties and fresh-faced starlets, Johnson's young stars still retain a certain degree of anonymity and it's a better movie for a lack of egos.

At times impenetrable and not particularly user-friendly (viewers at press showings were handed a glossary sheet before screenings), it nonetheless remains a thrilling and hugely impressive piece of work, channelling that essential film noir cool while retaining its own distinctive identity - there certainly won't be another film like Brick around for a long while.

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