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School of hard-boiled 

Brick takes gumshoe high school

Hear the premise of Brick and you'll imagine a teen thriller that turns up DOA. Writer/director Rian Johnson constructs a mannered mystery in the style of a hard-boiled 1940s detective story and places it amid modern-day California high-schoolers.

It's easy to imagine the concept gone wrong: pimply kids in fedoras, alternate titles like The Maltese Hall Monitor or The Big Detention. Remarkably, Brick mostly succeeds as a crafty, convoluted whodunit that includes an impressive feat of misdirection. As you watch Brick's young, amateur sleuth disentangle the plot, you may not appreciate that an insightful character study also is going on right under your nose.

At first, Brick's faux-film-noir scheme feels like someone pushed a classroom satire like Mean Girls into the murder mystery genre. Students talk about who they "lunch" with as shorthand for which powerful clique they belong to. Passing handwritten notes becomes a sinister means of communicating illicit messages.

Brooding loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), takes a mysterious phone call from former girlfriend Emily Kostach (it rhymes with "hostage"; Emilie de Ravin). Having fallen in with the wrong crowd, Emily blurts something about being in inexplicable trouble involving a brick before ringing off with violent abruptness. De Ravin of "Lost" provides Emily such ethereal delicacy that you innately understand why Brendan is so hung up on her, even though she has little screen time.

Brendan resolves to track down his ex, and like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he turns out to be a competent street fighter and a keen observer capable of catching clues and seeing through lies. Like his grown-up counterparts of past generations, Brendan moves incorruptibly through underworld outposts both high-class and low. He bluffs his way into a costume party of "upper-crust" popular kids. Instead of drunks at a Prohibition-era speakeasy, he roughs up some lowlife stoners who hang out around the Dumpsters behind a pie shop. In earlier eras, his data-sharing pal the Brain would be shining shoes or running a newsstand.

Any pulp suspense story needs a femme fatale, and Brick features two: a frivolous drama-class vamp (Meagan Good) and the more enigmatic Laura (Nora Zehetner), a well-connected "Heather" whom Brendan refuses to trust, no matter how sympathetic she seems.

Throughout the film, the characters speak with bizarrely antiquated slang. If Brendan wants a serious conversation, he says, "I need words." Vaguely British terms like "cadge" turn up alongside made-up terms like "reef worm" ("pot-smoker"). Someone even calls Brendan "Shamus." Since young people's slang tends to be both dense and quickly dated, it seems fair enough for Johnson to give the teens an artificial vocabulary, as long as their conflicts contain emotional truth.

Brendan follows Emily's trail to a young drug-dealing kingpin called, appropriately, "the Pin" (Lukas Haas). He runs a mini-empire from his dimly lit, wood-paneled basement, like a character from The Godfather. Haas matches Gordon-Levitt for soft-spoken charisma, but the Brando-esque flourishes work because the Pin doubtlessly sees himself as a darkly glamorous, misunderstood mobster a la Coppola. Likewise, it's easy to see Brendan casting himself as an alienated, noble, self-sacrificing hero.

Brick provides a fresh portrait of teen angst from the inside out. Rather than imitate the endless shadows of black-and-white noir, Johnson shows an eye for alienation, framing Gordon-Levitt alone in long alleys or empty football fields. It feels self-conscious at times -- Brendan seems to attend the biggest, emptiest high school on Earth. But we also believe that Brendan chooses to isolate himself. Bits of Brick's dialogue or criminal plot points may defy realism, but Johnson never treats the characters' feelings as a joke.

When the Pin asks Brendan if he reads Tolkien -- and what lonely, booksmart student doesn't? -- you brace yourself for a hip exchange along the lines of a Tarantino film. Instead, the Pin merely observes that Tolkien's descriptions make you wish you were there -- as if the young crime lord has already soured on his career choices.

Brick's conceit would collapse like a ton of you-know-what if adults intruded too closely. Teachers, parents and the "bulls" -- I mean, the police -- get mentioned but scarcely ever shown, with a pair of effective exceptions. Brendan matches words with a tough-talking assistant principal (played by blaxploitation legend Richard Roundtree) like he's being sweated by a powerful police officer. At a later moment, the Pin's pampering mom serves the boys a snack that provides some big, incongruous laughs without undermining the story.

As a director, Johnson shows a gift for seizing our attention and coming up with clever surprises. When Brendan trips a knife-wielding hood, his assailant falls from view but we hear the satisfying "clang!" when his head hits a metal post. The fight scenes hurt: By the end, Brendan has received so many beatings (mostly at the fists of Noah Fleiss' complex brute) he can barely walk.

Brick becomes more engrossing as the filmmaker burrows deeper into both the mystery and Brendan's quixotic, quasi-masochistic mission. Johnson and Gordon-Levitt turn out to be perceptive students of cinematic corruption, and earn Brick a star of slightly tarnished gold.

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