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April 08, 2006

Movie Review: Brick

Three and a half stars. I'd actually give it four stars, but I don't want to come off all gushy.

Brick is pretty much the best hard-boiled detective mystery they've made since... well, Miller's Crossing, I guess, though they don't seem to make too many of them.

It's a classic hard-boiled detective thriller, borrowing elements of its plot from Dashiel Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest (the infinitely-remade plot of an outsider infiltrating a gang in order to destroy it from within). The main character, Brandon, is the archetypal tough-guy sleuth -- he cracks wise when he shouldn't, is smarter than everyone else, can beat the shit out of most people but (most importantly) can also take a ferocious beating and still keep getting up, because he's fearless and undauntable.

The twist is that the movie is set in high school, and Brandon is a 17-year-old loner.


And they play that absolutely dead-pan straight. There is no (or very, very little) winking at the audience. Everyone in the movie acts as if he's just in a Sam Spade movie. And it's not about something silly, like a missing homecoming queen's tiarra. The mystery is about a murdered girl and a missing brick of heroin, so there's genuine danger and mystery afoot.

The movie plays on two levels-- one, as a straight hard-boiled detective mystery in which all the tropes of the genre are lovingly paid homage (the femme fatale, the beautiful but possibly untrustworthy love interest (introduced first as a torch-song singer, which I thought was brilliant), the detective getting knocked unconscious every half hour or so, the villainous mastermind with the physical disability (here, a club foot) and a walking stick, the plugged-in street informant who knows a little bit of everything that's going on, etc. -- and two, as a spoof of the genre, because it's often laugh-out loud funny to see this all play out in a suburban high school.

Richard Roundtree for example, plays a Vice Principal (or a truant officer, not sure which) who uses Brandon for information about the goings on in the school, effectively acting like the classic black superior officer who's always giving the hero-cop a hard time. (Okay, that's actually more of an eighties/nineties action-movie thing, but still, it works here.) When Roundtree threatens Brandon to tell him what's going on, Brandon says something like:

"Look, if you've got a discipline beef with me, either write me up or suspend me. But otherwise, keep off of my back. I can't try to figure this thing out with you kicking down the door in homeroom to check up on me."

Ridiculous? Yes, and a big laugh. But, once again: played completely dead-pan serious-straight. The writer/director and actors manage the nearly impossible, a spoof that works simultaneously as the very sort of picture he's spoofing. Shawn of the Dead managed this trick very well, being both effective as a straight zombie-survival flick and as a spoof of all zombie-survival flicks, but tending more towards spoof; this movie tends a little more towards a serious hard-boiled detective story, but with occasional laugh-out loud incongruities.

The only problem with the movie is this-- make sure you go to a theater with GREAT sound, because it's often very hard to make out the dialogue. The dialogue is heavy with 1930's slang -- gat for gun, bulls for cops, etc. -- mixed with invented high-school slang, so some bits of it are just impossible to follow. Sometimes you'll just have to guess at the basics of what was actually said based on your memory of how these sorts of movies play out. I'm still not really sure of some parts of the final resolution (yes, the hero explains it all at the end, but, as is often the case in a Marlowe or Spade novel, some of it is still pretty damn hard to follow), but I know the basics of it all because I read The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Raymond Chandler wrote an interesting essay about writing in this genre called "The Simple Art of Murder." The film follows the paradigm he laid out in the big details -- the detective not only travels horizontally across the city, but vertically, mixing (uncomfortably) with the upper classes (the rich kids, the popular kids, the athletes) and the lower/criminal classes (the poor kids, te druggies); the reader's/viewer's attention is diverted from the true mystery by another mystery which is actually only conincidentally related to the main one, etc. -- which is just more fun if you're a fan of the genre.

One more little tribute to the 1930's detective classics-- I can't bet my life on this, but I think there was no cursing in the whole movie. I'm not sure of that, but at the end of the movie I tried to remember any swearing, but couldn't think of any. (Okay, the hero says "The hell I am" at one point, but then, I think that low level of cursing was allowed even in the thirties.) There's also no actual sex or nudity (although, in keeping with the genre, the female characters are sexually aggressive and attempt to seduce the hero, with mixed results.)

The beat-downs and violence, on the other hand, is visceral and brutal.

Anyway, highly recommended, especially if your a fan of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Tom from Miller's Crossing. Best movie I've seen in a year or more.

And the stupid bastards aren't even advertising here. They're advertising all over the place, but not here. And yet I'm pimping their movie anyway. That's how good it was.

Corrections: Courtesy of iamfelix (The Simple, not delicate, Art of Murder) and Joe (correcting me that the truant officer was played by Richard Roundtree, not Louis Gosset Jr.).

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posted by Ace at 02:57 PM

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