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Rated 2.99 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Extra-Curricular Noir
by Jeffrey Chen

When film noir first emerged, its black heart and cynicism stuck out in contrast to the straight-arrow stories in Hollywood. It suggested a seductive darker world living behind the shadows and life as more than what we could see on the sunlit surface. These days, the movies' understanding that civilization can consist of a shiny veneer and much seediness underneath is taken for granted. Noir itself is now a standardized concept, a particular style to be appropriated or worn like a shirt.

And this is just what Brick does -- take a high school setting and dress it up in Dashiell Hammett's trenchcoat. To its credit, the movie seems quite aware of what it's accomplishing as a stylistic exercise. First-time feature director Rian Johnson drives the stakes in deep to create a very movie environment, where the characters exchange rapid-fire, slang-riddled dialogue and traverse a sordid world of lowlifes and druggies lit starkly by the sun when its not obscured in oppressive shadows. I'm actually quite surprised the movie wasn't just shot in black-and-white.

Brick also seems wisely conscious of its own inherent absurdity in combining afterschool intrigue with a hard-boiled atmosphere. As far as seedy underworlds go, there's little to expose from high school that hasn't been exposed before, so the movie instead takes a sensationalist approach that stretches its own rules of reality. It traffics in murder and specialty drugs, and its fearless investigative hero Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a rather ordinary-looking dude with glasses, holds his own taking punches from thugs twice his size. The femme fatales are slinky sexy and no one here seems to sleep regular hours.

The plot could've been set anywhere. Brendan tries to find out what's behind the murder of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), and it takes him into territory that he isn't terribly unfamiliar with. Through various associates and clues at school, he finds out a drug kingpin (Lukas Haas) is involved and looks for a way to infiltrate the gang for more answers. The bad guys are threatening, but Brendan himself is a quick-witted, no-nonsense type who doesn't crack a smile all movie long. The young participants in this mystery act rather amusingly like mini-adults in someone's vividly-imagined criminal universe.

In other words, if you take a step back from it, the whole thing feels rather ridiculous. The movie acknowledges as much, particularly in a funny moment when one of the characters' mother shows up to serve snacks. But, mostly, Brick is inviting in its subterfuge, asking us into its world and wanting us to get caught up in its moments of flourish. It's entertaining because the chosen style demands a very serious presentation with much commitment, but there's enough exposed in its concept and structure to allow us not to take it too seriously at all.

(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for violence and drug content.)

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