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Brick (2005): ****

Directed by Rian Johnson

Brick is a gimmick movie. In order for a gimmick movie to be any good, either (a) the gimmick has to be so fantastic that watching it for 90+ minutes is plenty or (b) the movie has to be more than its gimmick and stand on its own as a good movie. Since I am giving Brick a four-star review, I think it's safe to assume that it does one or the other.

The gimmick of this movie is that it is a straight-up, hard-boiled, detective/ mystery movie from the 1940s transposed directly into and early 21st century high school, keeping completely intact the verbiage and cadence from those movies (think Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, or other movies based on the works of Raymond Chandler). Thankfully the actors and the director, everyone involved in the entire production in fact, keep completely straight faces as to the asurdity of it all, and because the film is so internally consistent it becomes believable. In wrestling terms, they never "break kayfabe" to wink at the audience like that Bugsy Malone movie did (a 1930s gangsters movie acted by a bunch of li'l kids). As such the movie isn't a comedy, any more than The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. You won't normally hear high school kids say, "Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you."

It is a (a) fantastic gimmick, but fortunately (b) the movie stands on its own as an excellent detective mystery movie, with engaging characters, plot twists and backstabbing, a sexy femme fatale, and a down-on-his-luck but tough-as-nails protagonist who has to juggle all of the elements of the film and still find a way to come out on top, solve a murder, bring down a drug kingpin (played deliciously by Lukas Haas, as a "real old guy, like 26"), and not get killed in the process.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the main character Brendon, a student still hung up on his ex who dumped him. Brendon routinely gets the s--t beat out of him during the course of the movie but doggedly keeps on getting up, even when he probably shouldn't. He just gets more and more injured during the course of the movie, and after he passes out another character concernedly remarkes that he "swallowed a lot of blood." He is aided in his quest by The Brain, a classic informant character who hangs out outside the library and seems to have his fingers in most of the pies at the school.

I can't give very much of the plot away, because the joy in movies like this is trying to figure out the mystery along with the main character. Can the skirt be trusted? Is the obvious villain the real villain? In the end I couldn't think of any obvious plot holes, which is a bonafide success in this genre.

There are tonnes of brilliant touches, such as transforming the assistant vice-principal into a police chief-like character (there's even a scene that bears remarkable resemblance to one of those "turn in your badge" scenes). At one point, Brendan gets fed up with him and just shouts, "No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I'll see you at the Parent-Teacher conference." There are also a couple of scenes with mothers that are very funny because of the logical absurdity of them—again, they're played completely straight, but this time you can't help but laugh. And it works.

But ultimately a review like this can't do a movie like Brick justice. The movie is all style and moxie and dames and fists and machismo and peculiarities of 30s slang and language. It is absolutely brilliant.

A warning, though: Brick is not a blend of the "hard-boiled detective movie" genre and the "high-shcool movie" genre. It's a straight-up hard-boiled detective movie. If you like hard-boiled detective movies you'll probably love it. If you like high-shcool movies, you probably won't.

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