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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, does that apply when an idea is taken, massacred, and awkwardly plopped within a high school setting? Since famous author Dashiell Hammett is long gone, he is spared from seeing his brilliant detective pieces like “The Maltese Falcon” reincarnated in Brick, a jarring movie so influenced by Hammett that the filmmakers may as well send royalty checks to his gravesite. The tragedy is that instead of offering an electrifying new spin on a classic concept, writer/director Rian Johnson decides to massage our nerves on a cheese grater for a couple of hours.
Brick, a detective story blended with film noir, takes place in modern times at a Southern California high school. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plays the Humphrey Bogart character (minus the cool-cat quality), an outsider dodging the authorities to solve a case involving foul-play. After finding a note in his locker directing him to a nearby phone booth, Brendan receives a distressed call from a pretty ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin of “Lost”) begging him to help her. He struggles to meet her request, but gets an F on that assignment. Two days later she turns up dead under a sewage tunnel—a tragic side effect of hanging with a clique of druggie rejects.
Heartbroken and jaded, Brendan temporarily hides the body and enlists help from The Brain (Matt O’Leary), to track down the people who put such an early expiration date on her life. Along his journey he finds Dode the punk thug (Noah Segan), Laura the femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), Tugger the brutish lackey (Noah Fleiss), and an infamous non-student called The Pin (Lukas Haas). Foregoing sleep and obsessively hunting down signs, Brendan struggles to find the murderer within a vicious drug circle, or die trying.
Brick, winner of the Sundance prize for “Originality of Vision”, is incredibly cool in theory but equally as horrible in execution. Its biggest headache is creating its own old-school language, foreign to anyone without the handy press notes packet explaining what the terms mean. “It’s duck soup for you yegs” is one example of fancy-sounding gibberish, making it possible to only get the gist of entire monologues. Maybe it’s a mask to hide how utterly lame the dialogue is, since the recognizable lines don’t fare much better. In one scene, Brendan tells the Assistant Vice Principal (in a completely serious manner), “Don’t come kicking down my homeroom door once trouble starts.”
The concept of setting classic stories in high school has been done to death with Shakespeare renditions ranging from O (“Othello”) to 10 Things I Hate About You (“Taming of the Shrew”). Their common ground is that each one is somehow more hideous than the last butchered attempt. In the case of Brick, it’s not only dim but wickedly boring and tedious. The story is all set-up with nowhere to go, and the mystery quickly becomes as blasé as the dialect.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an adequate job, but lacks the kind of sparkle he showed in the under-appreciated Mysterious Skin. For most of the movie, he wanders around with his head down and hands in his pockets, drifting in and out of consciousness after someone else beats him to a bloody pulp. Ironically, the experience of watching Brick strangely echoes that sentiment.