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Why 'Brick' Is Slick

'Teen noir,' perfectly executed.

By Steve Burgess 13 Apr 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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In 1976, there was a movie called Bugsy Malone, starring Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. It was a gangster flick but with all the parts played by children, firing ice cream guns. I never did see Bugsy Malone, but I thought about it frequently while watching writer/director Rian Johnson's debut feature, Brick. I'm going to guess that Brick is a much, much better movie.

Brick is a classic film noir, perhaps the most stylish and effective modern noir since director John Dahl's 1994 The Last Seduction. The difference is that Brick is set in a 21st century California high school. The principal players are all students. Key scenes revolve around notes left in lockers. Hard-boiled Bogie dialogue emerges from callow teens engaged in bits of business just as nefarious as anything in the Maltese Falcon. If that seems jarring, it is. Brick continually walks a fine line between gripping, atmospheric thriller and weird film-school concept.

Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is searching for his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie DeRavin), who has left him to take up with the wrong crowd. He finds her too late, and then sets out to solve her murder. Naturally, the trail leads into dark territory, where dwells a shadowy drug lord known as The Pin (Lukas Haas).

'Write me up'

Possibly the most problematic scene in Brick is also the funniest -- and the most familiar. It's the standard confrontation between the Rogue and the Man. The Man is played by none other than Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree. Roundtree barks out the usual warnings to the Rogue (Frye), like: "Better watch your step pal, we'll come down hard on you, I'll cut you some slack but you better deliver, 'cause if someone has to take the fall it's not going to be me," and so on. What makes the scene hilarious is that in this case, the Man is not a police captain but an assistant vice-principal. Not even the principal, for God's sake. Frye's snarled response to the assistant V.P.'s threats: "Write me up or suspend me!" A young Clint Eastwood couldn't have said it better.

What makes the scene problematic is that, hilarious or not, it's not really comic relief. On the contrary, it's the basic concept of the film -- Sam Spade Goes to High School -- in bold print, double underlined. And the film is not a comedy. The plot is far too dark for that. So if you laugh at that scene, how can you take the rest of Brick seriously?

Homeroom retro

Chances are you will, simply because Brick is so well made. And despite the odd concept, Brick is utterly true to its dark inspirations. Compare it to another recent film noir tribute, the comic book adaptation Sin City. Sin City took noir style, themes, and atmospherics, and headed straight over the top into Grand Guignol territory. Sin City collaborators Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez quickly took their film from the sublime to the disappointingly ridiculous.

By contrast, Brick never goes off the rails. Beautiful cinematography belies the movie's small budget, and convincing performances keep you involved. Still, there will be times when a piece of lovingly stylized retro dialogue will knock you out of Brick's well-woven spell and make you wonder, "Hey! Shouldn't that kid be in chemistry class?"

Never mind. Intelligent, well-crafted film -- noir or otherwise -- does not come along every week. If you love Out of the Past and Double Indemnity, you should find this Brick to be pure gold.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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