Back in the late eighties, after the success of “The Breakfast Club,” there was a brief movement of what came to be called kiddie noir, in which male stars from that John Hughes movie became the protagonists in supposedly tough-as-nails action tales modeled after classics of the forties. So we got Judd Nelson in the atrocious “Blue City” and Anthony Michael Hall in the silly “Out of Bounds” (both 1986), and though Emilio Estevez never tried the genre, one could include the somewhat better “No Man’s Land” (1987), with his brother Charlie Sheen in one of the leads, as an example-by-proxy.
The boomlet died as quickly as those movies did at the boxoffice, but it’s now revived in a more stylish, affected fashion by Rian Johnson in “Brick,” which transposes the sort of twisty, Dashiell Hammett sort of detective yarn that Humphrey Bogart might once have starred in to the environs of a stark California high school, where outsider Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) determines to find out who killed his once-upon-a-time girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Assisted by his geeky info source Brain (Matt O’Leary) and put off by Kara (Meagan Good), a diva-esque drama junkie, he eventually works his way, often bloodily, through an assortment of archetypes to the truth: small-time dealer Dode (Noah Segan) and loud-mouth jock muscle-head Brad (Brian White), drug “kingpin” Pin (Lukas Haas) and his brutish henchman Tugger (Noah Fleiss), and, most importantly, Laura (Nora Zehetner), a damsel who’s by turn helpful and dangerous, the obligatory femme fatale in the mix.
Though it clearly apes the forties film noir in many narrative ways (including the fact that the poor protagonist must dextrously shuffle to mislead the people he’s dealing with, but constantly gets beaten up anyway), in other respects it quite deliberately departs from the model. It’s filmed by cinematographer Steve Yedlin in color, for one thing, and the almost uncomfortably bright images certainly don’t trade in the shadowy compositions that were characteristic of the old pictures. The tinkly, jangling piano-based score by Nathan Johnson, moreover, has absolutely nothing in common with the full orchestral, often jazzy ones that dominated sixty years ago.
All of which doesn’t mean that “Brick” doesn’t have its share of pleasures. Putting hard-boiled lingo reminiscent of forties detective chatter in the mouths of teens initially sounds affected, but most of the time it’s more amusing than irritating. And the acting is mostly strong. Gordon-Levitt continues his string of intriguing performances as the blandly calculating, bespectacled Brendan; even if he can’t make the constant pummeling he takes remotely credible, he’s great in one of the best sequences in the picture, in which he faces off against school VP Trueman (Richard Roundtree) in a perfect take-off on the obligatory scene in which Sam Spade (or somebody like him) confronts the chief of detectives who’s furious with his methods. Both Haas and Fleiss do nifty riffs on the underworld types, with the latter embodying the none-too-bright Tuff nicely and the former striking a queasily effective pose as a young guy trying desperately to look sinister by wearing a trench coat and flourishing a walking cane. (Their scenes are given added comic spark by the fact that The Pin’s “hideout” is in the basement of his house, where his mom flutters about offering “guests” orange juice and cereal.) O’Leary and Segan are fine, too, even if one wonders what Peter Lorre, an obvious model, would have thought about Dode’s duds. Things aren’t nearly, as strong on the distaff side–Good trues too hard and Zehetner seems pallid–but they get by.
So “Brick” isn’t the embarrassment that it could have been–a variant of Alan Parker’s 1982 misfire “Bugsy Malone,” in which kids played 1920s gangsters. But it still is more a stunt than a really satisfying twist on an old formula. It’s enjoyable but thin, an exercise in style in which the appearance almost compensates for the lack of substance–but not quite.