Brick: Directed by Rian Johnson, Inspired by Dashiell Hammett

Sundance Film Fest 2005 (Dramatic Competition)–Writer-director Rian Johnson claims he was inspired to write “Brick” after reading Dashiell Hammett, and indeed, the author’s fans might be able detect plots, characters, and especially hard-boiled dialogue from “Red Harvest,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Glass Key,” and other classic American detective fiction.

“Brick” premiered last year at the Sundance Film Fest, where it divided critics. Some were impressed with Johnson’s original vision, whereas others dismissed it as an ambitious but too self-reflexive and attention-grabbing effort.

At first, it is disconcerting to hear tough-guy slang and recycled detective dialogue by California high-school teenagers. However, once the director gets beyond the point of establishing a link to Hammett, and we get used to the initially awkward sounding dialogue, he actually has a moderately engaging story to tell, one set mostly in a high school and revolving around the mysterious circumstances of his girlfriend’s death.

Like River’s Edge, to which this film bears slight resemblance, the narrative begins with the uncovering of girl’s corpse in a creek close to a sewer. It’s the body of Emily (Emilie DeRavin from TVs “Lost”), the ex-girlfriend of Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an outsider student par excellence.

Brendan is constructed in theHammett mold of loner tough guys who never shy away from trouble to get to the truth. He was in love once with Emily, but she left him and fell into the high society mix with the more popular and richer students. Although they were not in touch, Brendan received a brief call from Emily the day before her body was found. Assuming the guise of a private eye, Brendan begins to probe the high-school social scene, which, up until then, he made every effort to avoid and ignore.

Brendan’s personal researcher, referred to as The Brain (Matt OLeary), provides the scoops he needs in unraveling the mystery. The characters Brendan examines represent colorful if overly familiar types, most of which are taken from hard-boiled literature. They include the predatory Kara (Meagan Good); pot-addled hipster Dode (Noah Segan), whom Brendan slaps around by imitating Bogart; muscle-bound thug Tugger (Noah Fleiss), and queen bitch Laura (Nora Zehetner).

The film’s most mysterious and intriguing character is the Pin (Lukas Haas), a thin, cane-wielding drug dealer who, though older than the others, still lives at home with his mother. The tension-ridden scenes between Brendan and the Pin are well-staged by Johnson and well-acted, which can’t be said about the rest of the picture.

Johnson steers clear of film noir vocabulary, which has become a bunch of visual clichs in most recent indies. For one thing, most of the film is exterior and takes place at daytime. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin elevates the proceedings with his imagery of a sparsely populated San Clemente, situated on the California Coast south of Los Angeles. Against current standards, Johnson stages an interesting foot chase that could be described as low-tech.
Gordon-Levitt, who impressed last year in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” gives another dominant performance here, showing, more than the others, facility in delivering in a semi-convincing manner the peculiar dialogue.

There’s a good scene in the office of the principal, played by Richard Shaft Roundtree, and some actors acquit themselves better than others, such as the low-rent druggie Dode (Noah Segan), who offers support when needed, and Nora Zehetner, as a noirish femme fatale in the vein of the young Mary Astor.

Unlike most movies at Sundance this year, “Brick” suffers from a weak beginning but then improves substantially until it reaches it logical conclusion. The plot is almost as thick and complicated as that of The Big Sleep; the central motif, the tragedy of lost love, gets lost in the shuffle. The climax, which can’t be revealed here, is taken verbatim from one of Hammett’s famous stories.

Johnson is not the first filmmaker to borrow classic lit and apply it to modern situations. Baz Luhrmann and Michael Almereyda had transplanted Shakespearean to contemporary situations, with varying degrees of success; the former with “Romeo + Juliet,” the latter with “Hamlet.”