First time writer/director Rian Johnson had a bit of a crazy idea. He loved the film noir genre and wanted to do one of his own. But, the elements of the genre are easily recognizable thanks to the stark lighting, dark subject matter, trenchcoats, and sultry women. Just about everything has been done with the noir, so Johnson decides to place his film in a high school setting with teenagers as the characters. It sounds like a silly premise for a parody, except Johnson plays it straight and manages to dust off an old staple of cinema and give it a fresh coat of paint.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the classic loner. He keeps everyone at a distance and eats his lunch behind the Port-A-Johns so that no one will bother him. Brendan's aloof manner belies the love he still carries for his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin of "Lost" fame), who has since fallen in with the wrong crowd. Out of the blue, Brendan gets a call from a distraught and frightened Emily asking for help and babbling about a "brick." They meet, but Emily just tells Brendan to stay away. Two days later, he finds her dead, face down in front of a sewer tunnel.
Brendan takes it upon himself to navigate the various cliques at his school with help from his right-hand man, The Brain (Matt O'Leary), who provides him with info and whatever else might be needed. Brendan's journey brings him on a collision course with an assortment of colorful characters. There's the popular power couple of Brad Bramish (Brian J. White), the football jock, and Laura (Nora Zehetner), the femme fatale. Brad is a total lunkhead, but Laura has her fingers on everyone's pulse and she's anxious to help Brendan. Not so eager to help are Dode (Noah Segen), a stoner who hangs out by the dumpsters near a coffee shop, and Kara (Meagan Good), a snobbish member of the Drama Club.
Digging deeper, Brendan uncovers the identity of The Pin (Lukas Haas), short for "kingpin", a young man responsible for the city's drug trade. Brendan has to step gingerly in his dealings with the crime boss, thanks to The Pin's main muscle, the brutish Tug (Noah Fleiss). If that wasn't bad enough, Brendan has Trueman (Richard Roundtree), the school's assistant vice-principal, breathing down his neck.
Fans of "3rd Rock From the Sun" will be surprised at how different Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks and acts in this film. He's a much more darker character and brings a lot of strength and maturity to the role. Watching Brendan in action makes you wonder if Sam Spade or Mike Hammer were ever in this thick during their school days. Gordon-Levitt definitely continues to pave the road originally started by actors like Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart. He'll take a few shots to get a good one in and he's got the hard-boiled dialogue down to a tee. Brendan backs off a gang of potheads by warning them, "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."
And I hope I don't spoil too much when I say that Zehetner reminds me a lot of Mary Astor in "The Maltese Falcon." She gives off the same vibe as the seemingly trustworthy woman latching onto the hero. Both Astor and Zehetner were brought a sexiness to their roles, done in a restrained manner, unlike the more overtly revved-up femme fatales like Rita Hayworth or Lana Turner.
Long-time followers of film noir will get all the influences and references being dropped during "Brick." Johnson was a huge fan of the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing", which introduced him to the works of Dashiell Hammett since it was based on Hammett's novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest. You can easily see touches of both of those quintessential detective yarns when Brendan attempts to play the opposing sides against one another.
The high school setting also gives us two surreal moments that would probably never come out of the pens of Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or James M. Cain. A blindfolded Brendan is taken to The Pin's home where he's beaten by Tug and locked in the basement. In the next scene, he's brought up to the kitchen where The Pin's mom fixes him juice and cereal. Later, Brendan comes to at Tug's place where he meets the tough guy's mob, a gaggle of white-trash goons in white t-shirts and blue jeans. It adds a bizarre sensibility to the film, along with a pinch of humor.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is what you would expect from a release this recent. There's no murkiness or imperfections to the picture.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound is crisp and clear which is to the benefit of such a dialogue-heavy film.
The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode feature short clips of Nora Zehetner and Noah Segen auditioning for their respective roles.
There's a collection of deleted and extended scenes with introductions by Rian Johnson as he explains why they didn't make the final cut.
Finally, you get an audio commentary track with filmmaker Rian Johnson who discusses the genesis of this project and various aspects of making a feature film for the first time and on a low budget. He's joined at various points by Segen, Zehetner, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch.
"Brick" isn't billed as "A Film by Rian Johnson", but as "A Detective Movie by Rian Johnson", which it most definitely is. Certainly, you might have to take a leap of faith in order to digest parts of the film. We never see the inside of a classroom once throughout the film. Not to mention, I doubt any high school student would ever in a million years say the word, "yegg." Yet, the story is incredibly rich and just so much fun that I was more than willing to put myself in their hands and just let them take me along for the ride. Films like "Brick", "Sin City", and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" have made me a happy noir junkie.