Brick

We all know the story. Sociopathic tough-guy loner finds himself involved in inexplicable mystery. Someone has disappeared. The only clues are the words from a garbled phone call. Our hero taps into his connections on the street, kicks a few butts, and discovers that he's onto something bigger than he suspected. But that doesn't faze him. He's determined to get to the bottom of it all.

What follows is a descent into a seedy underworld of crime, complete with gorgeous women (who come onto our hero), diabolical but half-crazed villains, muscle-bound thugs, corrupt and clueless authorities and a brainy sidekick. It's a tough crowd to be playing games with, but our hero is more than up to the challenge. Along the way a few other side characters get killed, a lot of other people get beaten up or hurt, but through it all our hero never loses his cool, eventually proving himself smarter, tougher and more ruthless than everyone else. By the time the movie ends, all the bad guys are either dead or in prison while our hero has come out of it scot free, and can go back to his miserable meaningless life. No one's particularly happy, but at least justice has been done.

The fact that all this action takes place not in the gritty alleys of John Huston's suffocating cityscape, but in and around a high school, and that the hero in question is not a snarling private eye but an over-intense school kid bunking class, makes little difference. You would have to be blind and deaf not to see the film noir influences here – Brick is a straight up Humphrey Bogart flick, and the ghost of The Maltese Falcon haunts this movie all the way through, even down to the tacky little bird statuette on the villain's mail box.

To say that Brick leaves you unmoved, that its plot is full of holes and its acting has a plastic, hammy quality about it, is to miss the point entirely. Great film noir is entirely about the formula – no one got emotionally involved with character of Sam Spade, or watched The Maltese Falcon for the intricacies of the plot – the whole point of that movie was the attitude. It's the uber-coolness that we craved, the smooth-talking tough guy-ness, the aura of casual menace. We knew the good guy was going to win out, despite the odds; what's more, we knew he was going to pull it off without getting even slightly flustered or putting in more effort than it takes to have a drink. The thrill was seeing how. And if the intensity seemed over-the-top in a comic book kind of way, so much the better. We weren't looking for realism, we were looking for the vibe.

And for all of Brick's many flaws (the street-slang is distracting, the violence seems a little overdone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but he's no Bogart) that vibe is the one thing it gets mostly right [1]. There are a lot of ways in which the movie is (I suspect unintentionally) funny – you have only to step back from the action and remind yourself that these are high school kids we're talking about and the whole thing begins to look like caricature, despite its frenetic attempts to take itself seriously (and there are a lot of those). But the genius of Rian Johnson's script and direction is that it keeps you involved enough so that you don't notice the preposterousness of it all until you step out of the theatre. And that's really impressive.

If there's one thing that doesn't transfer well, it's the main character. Sam Spade was anti-social and screwed up, but he was never needy, never vulnerable. Brendan, the hero of Brick, is frequently both, and the result is that he comes across as more creepy than cool, more desperate than dapper. You very rarely get the sense that Brendan is in control of anything, and the few times that he does come through the effect is more of someone who's a tad psychotic rather than a hard-nosed professional trying to get the job done. It's a weakness in the script that seems unavoidable, given the high school staging, but it's a serious weakness none the less.

Bottomline: Brick is a fascinating tribute to the genre of film noir, and a truly delightful conceit that's well executed and interesting to watch. If you're the kind of person who never saw the point of those old Bogart films, then this is certainly not the movie for you. If on the other hand, you're someone who can mouth along to the dialogue of the Maltese Falcon, you probably should watch this movie. It won't blow you away. But it'll entertain you.

Notes

[1] Right down to the old-fashioned misogynism that is so central to the Bogart myth. Men, it seems, are always fine, upstanding chaps – even when they're trying to kill you. They're the kind of guys who read Tolkien and fall helplessly in love, and when they hurt someone it's only because they're confused and don't know what to do with their emotions. Women, on the other hand, are all scheming vixens who use their sex to get men to do exactly what they want. The fact that our hero is able to resist these sirens is the real proof of his supremacy.

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