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Most moviegoers may be familiar with Rian Johnson’s name after hearing it in advertisements for the upcoming Looper. For my part, I had the good fortune of discovering Johnson’s work through The Brothers Bloom, an awesome heist flick that was released back in 2008. Yet even before that, Johnson made his writing/directing feature debut on Brick, a 2006 movie that’s been recommended to me by multiple sources.

Now seemed like as good a time as any to see Johnson’s lauded breakout film, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint.

The movie’s tagline reads “A detective movie,” and that’s exactly what Brick is. It’s a hard-boiled whodunit through and through, complete with underground crime rings, a murder mystery, a powerful figure pulling strings from the shadows, a mysterious femme fatale, and a detective who gets in over his head. The twist is that all of the main characters are teenagers.

The film applies standard noir tropes and stereotypes to those of a standard high school film, and it’s quite shocking how well the two genres mesh. Both stories need well-connected people to provide gossip and rumors, both genres usually feature thugs who are all muscle and no brains, and both films are known for having beautiful love interests, etc. There’s also the social aspect to consider, as high schools are so famously divided into cliques and social strata. This can make for some fascinating metaphors, with the more popular kids representing the wealthy elite, the outcasts and punks representing the criminal underworld, and so on. Last but not least, the torrid sexual affairs of hard-boiled mysteries are implicitly made a lot more tragic when applied to teenagers, ditto for all the violent crimes and drug-dealing that happen. Indeed, we’re presented with a dead teenager as soon as the movie opens.

The dead girl is Emily (Emilie de Ravin, who’s now probably more famous for her recurring roles on “Lost” and “Once Upon a Time”). She broke up with Brendan a few months ago under mysterious circumstances, and it just so happens to be Brendan standing over her body. Flash back to a couple of days prior.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, halfway between the end of “3rd Rock” and the start of his massive comeback in 2009) suddenly gets a request to meet with Emily under very unusual conditions. It’s not immediately clear exactly what’s going on, except that Emily’s gotten herself into some kind of trouble. Burdened with lingering affection and a misplaced sense of responsibility, Brendan starts asking around to figure out what Emily’s gotten herself into and whether or not she’s safe.

Easily Brendan’s closest and most trusted associate is Brian (Matt O’Leary), a slightly geeky yet attentive fellow who’s also called “The Brain.” Another vital contact is Kara (Meagan Goode), a well-connected drama queen always looking out for number one. Next up is Dode (Noah Segan), a stoner punk that Emily was recently seen hanging out with. We’ve also got Brad Bramish (Brian White), a tough-talking jock who regularly takes illegal drugs. Finally, there’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), the resident femme fatale who may know more about Emily’s recent activities than she’s letting on.

It’s interesting to note that unlike all of the other characters, Brendan doesn’t fall neatly into any of the “Breakfast Club” archetypes. In fact, we never really learn all that much about Brendan, though we do learn enough. For one thing, it’s made abundantly clear that Brendan is a very smart and resourceful person. Perhaps more importantly, Brendan isn’t so dependent on his wit that he can’t use his fists when the time comes. Not that he’s Mike Tyson or anything, but he’s got a surprising amount of scrap to him. That said, the movie doesn’t try to present our protagonist as Superman. Brendan gets his ass beaten quite a few times in this film, and he never gets the luxury of shrugging off injury without a scratch.

Far more importantly, Brendan has a strong motivation. He fell in love with a girl and he wants to protect her from some dangerous individuals. It’s clear, it’s relateable, and it’s understandable. Moreover, given that we know Emily will just die anyway, his initial motivation is quite tragic as well.

To sum up, Brendan is fiercely intelligent, surprisingly capable in a fight, he’s got a great comedic wit, he has a perfectly clear motivation, and yet he’s hardly invincible. That may not be much to go on, but for a hard-boiled detective story, it’s more than enough. Of course, JGL’s superlative portrayal of the character goes a long way as well.

Getting back to the plot, it doesn’t take long for the film to catch up with the prologue. By the end of the first act, Brandon has found the body and we know what brought him to that point. The remainder of the film focuses on Brandon’s attempt at learning who killed Emily and why. This eventually brings him into conflict with Tug (Noah Fleiss), the main enforcer for a mysterious drug dealer known only as “The Pin” (Lukas Haas). Things quickly escalate from there, with shipments of a new street drug, political maneuverings and vendettas between characters, and yet another murder. Even worse, the authorities are starting to bring some heat down on the proceedings, and a rather slimy assistant vice principal (ironically named “Trueman,” played by Richard Roundtree) seems all too eager to help. Before long, Brendan isn’t just struggling to solve Emily’s murder, he’s trying to stay alive.

This seems like as good a place as any to stop and comment on the villains. Pin (with the exception of Trueman, who only appears in one scene) is the only adult in the cast, but the film still treats him like a teenager. After all, the guy lives with his oblivious mom, who’s only too happy to treat her son and his friends like innocent children. What’s more, Lukas Haas plays the character as an enigma, such that it’s hard to tell exactly how old he is or what larger goals he might have. Compare that to Tug, who’s really nothing more than a brainless thug without the “h.”

Additional kudos are also due to Nora Zehetner, who makes for a wonderful femme fatale. The character is incredibly seductive and helpful, but there’s always the question of whether or not she’s working some other angle. Laura is easy to like, but never easy to trust. I wish I could say more, but that would bring me dangerously close to spoiler territory. Suffice to say that Zehetner walks a lot of fine lines with her performance, and her chemistry with JGL is great.

Then there’s all the talent going on behind the scenes. This film is loaded to the brim with clever shot compositions and creative visual flourishes. It makes the movie quite immersive, particularly when Brendan is getting the crap beaten out of him. There’s also the film’s score, composed by Rian’s cousin, Nathan Johnson. The music was nicely evocative of noir cinema, but with a very twisted edge to it. There were several moments of cacophony, which blended nicely with the aforementioned visual flourishes to create a feeling of chaos. There’s no way this score would have worked in any other movie.

However, this brings me to one of my nitpicks with the film: The sound design. Not to say it was awful, but the sound mixing could have used a lot more work. The footfalls sounded way too loud during a particular foot chase, and there’s another scene in which the dialogue was almost drowned out by passing cars.

I should also point out that the film does have the occasional plot hole here and there. For example, the film seems oddly inconsistent regarding how well Brendan can see without his glasses. Additionally, there were some very contrived story points and the film relied too heavily on dream sequences for my liking. With all of that said, these are just nitpicks in what’s otherwise a very intelligent and tensely plotted screenplay.

Brick is a fantastic film, made all the more impressive by its $500,000 budget. Rian Johnson really came out swinging, establishing himself as a wonderfully creative and talented filmmaker with remarkable speed. He crafted a smart and compelling noir thriller, made all the more interesting by its unique score, visual flair, and high school setting. Of course, it also helps that Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchors such a wonderful cast.

I absolutely recommend tracking this film down, and I’d suggest watching The Brothers Bloom as well. Not only are they both quality films, but they’re proof positive that Johnson is one of the most versatile up-and-comers in Hollywood right now.

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