It’s always interesting when works of art (books, plays, films, etc…) are updated from their native settings. Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet took the Bard’s most famous play and set it in modern day California, making it fresh again. Francis Ford Coppola set Conrad’s Heart of Darkness during the Vietnam War, making Apocalypse Now one of the most revered and realistic films of that era. There are several more examples in this trend that deserve to be mentioned, but I must fast-forward to the film a… hand. That is Brick, a film written and directed by newcomer Rian Johnson. Johnson wisely sets his film noir story in a modern day California high school. The update takes a while to get used to, but after a small buffer period, Brick becomes a fresh spin on the film noir genre, who’s day has come and gone.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brenden, a high school student who watches as his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Lost’s Emile de Ravin), falls into the wrong crowd and winds up dead. After Brenden receives a panicked call for help shortly before her death, he dives into the drug-dealing underworld inhabiting his school to find out who done Emily wrong. As with most film noir films, Brenden discovers that the truth behind Emily’s death is not simply a black and white issue. Brenden is also aided by a femme fatal in Laura (Nora Zehetner), who may or may not be on his side.
After having seen Brick’s trailer many times and practically drooling over it, I was never able to catch the film in theaters due to its limited release. When it was released on DVD, I waited and waited as 1 of the 2 copies at the local Blockbuster became available. Was it worth the wait?
Brick does have a lot going for it. The updating of film noir to a high school setting is almost seamless. High school cliques are also used well. And while the dialogue seems out of place, it has a retro-coolness that allows us to overlook it as being forced or fake, which it ultimately is. But it’s all style, baby!
However, Brick crawls toward an unfortunate ending where we never really know who was responsible for Emily’s death, even when it’s spelled out for us in a slick re-cap speech at the end. While all the pieces to the plot fit nicely together in a film noir puzzle, there is no satisfaction in watching the people responsible for Emily’s death get their comeuppance. For the most part, we don’t know that the characters responsible are getting what they deserve when it’s getting done to them. So the payoff is moderate at best.
There is, however, nothing to find fault with in Gordon-Levitt’s performance. He sheds whatever image he had from that god-awful show, Third Rock from the Sun, he was on back in the 90’s with a kick-ass performance of laid-back cool and manic desperation. To top it all off, he plays the faceless kid that exists in high school — so seeing him crack some jock skulls is reward enough. Lukas Haas (Lady in White) also turns in a solid performance as a drug boss who still lives at home, and at times, even shows glimmers of Brando and Pacino in his role.
Brick is a refreshing take on film noir, as most updates of old genres tend to be. While some aspects of film noir do feel out of place in the high school setting, the magic that made film noir such a powerful and rich genre is still at work here, resulting in an always fascinating film.
Brick is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film looks drab and gray, and contains just enough grain to become noticeable. The grain never becomes distracting, but it is there, only highlighted by the film’s dim color palate. Brick does not have a pretty picture by any means.
Brick comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack but it could have come with a Pro Logic soundtrack and nothing would have changed. The film is dialogue driven and contains a minor score that never takes control. Like the picture, the soundtrack is serviceable but never makes much use of the surround speakers, if any. You could even give the good old surround sound receiver a night off and you wouldn’t be missing a thing.
Commentary with Director Rian Johnson and Cast – Johnson takes a different approach to the commentary and instead of giving us insight behind what’s going on on-screen, he informs us on how he came to make the film from the script stage. Citing the Coen Brothers’ Miller Crossing, film noir, and pulpy detective novels as inspiration, Johnson set out to make his own film noir movie. He wisely decided to update the film to high school since film noir films are instantly recognizable and usually not taken seriously in today’s age, thanks to spoofs and genre saturation.
Deleted and Extended Scenes with Introduction from Director – Johnson introduces roughly 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. He admits that very little of the film was cut, but he did trim down a lot of scenes to bring the film in at roughly 110 minutes.
The Inside Track: Casting the Roles – here we have the screen tests of Nora Zehetner (Laura) and Noah Segan (Dode).
Brick is an interesting take on film noir, but it does contain its share of flaws and formalities. The performances make up for any shortcomings having to do with the genre update, but the A/V transfer leaves a lot to be desired. The commentary is interesting and there are a slew of deleted and extended scenes to chew on, but the casting footage seems like filler. Sadly, for every positive with this disc, there is a balancing negative. Despite all this, I do recommend Brick as a film that could soon reach cult status.
Special Features List
- Director Commentary
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- The Inside Track: Casting the Roles