Pulp diction 

click to enlarge Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, with Megan - Good) plays a hard-boiled high-school detective.
  • Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, with Megan Good) plays a hard-boiled high-school detective.

*Brick (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak
If you're looking for a crucial scene in the ingeniously satisfying teen noir Brick, you won't find that it involves a murder, or a beating, or a seduction by a hot femme fatale with legs that go all the way up. You'll know you're watching it when you see a nice lady pouring juice.

Writer/director Rian Johnson won an award at Sundance 2005 for "originality of vision," and it would be easy to assume that it was simply for the clever conceit of taking the detective milieu of Dashiell Hammett and setting it on a high school campus. But what's truly original about Brick is the way Johnson allows us to glimpse people living outside the film's carefully constructed genre universe. By doing so, he takes something that's dazzling enough as text and gives it a wicked layer of subtext.

Like any Hammett-esque tale worth the nomenclature, it starts out with a dame. We first see Emily Kostach (Emilie de Ravin) lying in a storm drain; in a flashback, we learn she once was the girlfriend of Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and reached out to him as she descended into some kind of trouble. Like all trouble at Brendan's school, he figures this probably leads back to The Pin (Lukas Haas). The Pin's a shadowy post-teen with his fingers in the local drug trade, and Brendan can only count on his pal The Brain (Matt O'Leary) to find out where Emily fits in.

Johnson weaves his way through the plot with a fierce respect for his genre forebears. But this is no mere homage or mash-up. Johnson's tough-guy dialogue is razor-sharp, as when Brendan taunts a gaggle of stoners: "I've got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you."

Gordon-Levitt who, between this film and 2004's Mysterious Skin, is improbably turning into one of our great young actors leads a nimble cast that seems to know exactly how to utter each stylized syllable. Every word jabs and hooks, creating something with its own unique, frequently hilarious poetry.

Johnson seems as slick behind the camera as he does in front of his word processor. There's remarkable visual brio in Brick's sets, from the glittering mirror reflections in a darkened attic to The Pin's straight-outta-1974 basement lair. Nearly from start to finish, the film looks as good as it sounds.

With savvy, Brick explores the notion that high school is entirely about trying on roles and character types. It's here that the presence in one scene of The Pin's mother offering juice to her son's friends in a naturalistic gesture of hospitality proves to be such a stroke of genius. It establishes that the parents in Brick's universe exist outside its stylized play-acting. And it establishes how oblivious those parents and the kids themselves can be to the times when that play-acting gets deadly serious.

Johnson's neatest trick is that he's taken a cautionary tale about teens who think coolness trumps all, and disguised it as a frisky, violent piece of eye- and ear-candy. He serves up the veggies on Brick's plate of medium-rare steak so unobtrusively, you hardly know they're there. And he gives you the choice of washing it all down either with a straight shot of bourbon, or a nice glass of juice.

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