Rian Johnson graduated from USC Film School in 1996 with a student film under his belt. Nine years later, he has written, directed, and edited his first theatrical feature. Brick is a curious nod to the classic noir films of the 1940s updated to contemporary settings. Curious, because the characters are modern suburban America high school students.
To Johnson's credit, the movie does not play like a gimmicky Bugsy Malone novelty piece parodying or mimicking the source reference material. The story is written and played completely straight, with the potential for for serious danger and death in the characters' predicaments.
The part of the hard-boiled, relentless private eye has been morphed to a loner at the schoolyard – Brendan – who eats his meals in private behind the buildings. He was once involved in the prevalent drug scene at the school, but seems to have straightened out and broken off from the kids who used to comprise his network. Brendan had a relationship with Emily, but she ended it as she got more and more involved with drugs and the underground hardcore pushers clique.
Brendan is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the youngest of the alien family on Third Rock From The Sun), and he does an excellent job portraying the proper world-weary resignation of a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade as he digs himself deeper into danger while chasing after a mystery he knows he should probably stay out of. Gordon-Levitt effectively makes you forget about his long running stint as a silly sitcom lead.
Brendan's arch-nemesis is the shadowy character known as "The Pin" (for Kingpin). The Pin is played by Lukas Haas, best remembered as the young boy in Witness. Haas does not come off as well in his Sydney Greenstreet-themed characterization as the head of the local drug cartel. The Pin dresses entirely in black, sporting a flowing black cape, a duck-headed walking stick, and an oversized orthopedic shoe on one foot to compensate for a gimpy leg. He is meant to inspire fear and complete obeisance from all around him, but Haas does not have the right physical presence and his costuming seems like a joke.
The rest of the cast members are pretty much stuck in roles that are more caricatures than characters. First there is the mysterious woman who might be in love with the detective or might be a duplicitous schemer. In Brick, the character is Laura, played by Nora Zehetner. She has the right Brigid O'Shaughnessy look for the requisite tender scenes with Brendan, but comes across as a weaker person than the part calls for.
Brendan's partner behind the scenes in his investigation is Matt O'Leary as "The Brain" — a wasted part established purely to let them share expository dialog when necessary to advance the plot. Richard Roundtree shows up in an extended cameo as the Assistant Vice Principal of the high school in a scene intended to reflect the standard noir run-in between the detective and the local police chief. Roundtree overplays it with unexplained malice and anger towards Brendan (see the scene between Schwarzenegger and his chief in The Last Action Hero for reference).
The supporting player who comes off the best is Noah Fleiss as "Tugger," the main muscle for The Pin. What starts out as a cliched bruiser develops into something much deeper and more interesting as events progress.
The problem with all these characters is not so much the situation and plot line as the dialog that Johnson has written for them. He seems determined to prove to the audience his encyclopediac knowledge of 1940s noir lingo. He has his high school students intersperse their standard realistic dialog with modern street/drug slang and 1940s gangster terms such as yeggs, bulls, and "taking a powder." It's difficult writing to deliver and Johnson has his actors speak much of it at rapid fire pace (going for a Howard Hawks approach). Many of the conversations are poorly miked and we find ourselves too often straining to understand what has been said. Add in a tendency to overpack plot points into short speeches and the film can be compared to a badly tuned stick-shift jalopy. It lurches suddenly forward, coasts for a bit, requires a moment in reverse to figure out what just happened, then lurches forward again. The problem is reinforced by Johnson's choppy editing (supposedly done on a home computer) and some dark scenes that are excessively grainy and difficult to make out.
Overall, it's an interesting academic exercise, but I can't recommend it for sheer entertainment value.
Parents' notes include: adult situations including drug references, violence, death, and implied sexual situations. Older high schoolers might be fascinated if they understand why the characters are talking so strangely.