Brick (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

School of hard knocks
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One of the warmest tributes ever paid by one great writer to another was Raymond Chandler's comment on Dashiell Hammett: "He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." As a definition of what makes for good writing, that's hard to fault.

But Brick turns that idea on its head: Rian Johnson's debut feature is crammed with scenes that do seem to have been written before, mostly by either Hammett or Chandler; and it is in that sense of déjà vu that its originality and intelligence lie.

The basic pitch for Brick is that it is a hard-boiled noir detective film set in a modern Californian high school. But that makes it sound far more flippant and juvenile than it is - like Clueless, only with clues. It is set in a rainwashed, colourless California of concrete and asphalt. The hero - the Philip Marlowe figure - is Brendan Frye, a serious, self-contained teenager who eats lunch alone by the dumpsters behind his school. When he finds out that his ex-girlfriend, Emily, is in trouble, he sets out to find her and uncover the truth, armed with a few unexplained words she spoke over the phone: "pin", "tug" and "brick". Soon, he has found Emily's corpse and is caught up in a carefully woven web of drug-dealing, gang warfare and sexual rivalries. Just like in any high school.

Brendan is a figure straight out of Chandler - neither tarnished nor afraid, a tough guy who doesn't look too obviously tough, who talks straight and ranks pretty high at insubordination. Women fall for him, men trust him; but he is careful not to fall for anybody too hard, or to trust anybody too far. Joseph Gordon-Levitt - who was admired in the film Mysterious Skin, but is probably more familiar to most as the adolescent alien in the television comedy Third Rock from the Sun - embodies the Marlowe ideal brilliantly. Watching the film, you realise that one reason he can do this, and one reason the film feels like so much more than a mere pastiche, is that Marlowe is essentially a rather immature fantasy. Think about it: Marlowe sits by himself most of the time, keeps getting into arguments with authority figures, regards the world around him as insufferably compromised and immoral - doesn't that sound an awful lot like a teenage boy?

In this sense, Brick is a realistic film: little happens that feels immediately implausible or incongruous. Brendan's nobility, the duplicity and rage of the femmes fatales and the hoodlums he runs up against, which might feel exaggerated in the context of the adult world, here seem quite natural.

At the same time, though, the moods and emotions are expressed in a deeply unnatural language, the hard-boiled slang of Hammett's novels. Contemporary Californian teenagers are heard calling detectives "bulls", a gun a "gat", drugs "hop" or "dope", the town is a "burg"; people don't just leave, they blow, or they take a powder, Brendan himself gets called a "shamus". The "Pin" in Emily's phone-call turns out to be a local drug-dealer - it's short for kingpin; having made his way into the Pin's lair through a combination of bluff and muscle, Brendan refuses to talk unless the Pin gets his hired thug out of the room: or, as he puts it, "The ape blows or I clam."

The effect is disorientating at first; but after a while I just felt exhilarated by the snap of the cast's delivery, the deftness with which Johnson captures the vocabulary and rhythms of a bygone age. Incidentally, the Pin's home has a number of bronze statuettes of birds of prey: I'm no ornithologist, but I'm pretty sure they were Maltese falcons.

Among the film's other curious elements is an almost complete absence of adults (Lukas Haas's Pin is out of school, but probably can't buy alcohol without ID). Their rare appearances mark the film's only overt forays into comedy. The first comes when Brendan is called in to see the assistant vice-principal. Their conversation mirrors the kind of talk Marlowe would have with a DA or police captain who is a square-shooter but is damned if he's going to let some shamus walk all over the law. After they've sparred their way to a deal, of sorts, Brendan stalks out of the office, throwing over his shoulder a snarled "See you at the parent conference" - a lovely instance of comic bathos.

The second is at the Pin's house: his solicitous mom fusses over her son's friends, serving them juice and milk, then leaves the room while they get on with talking about drug-deals gone wrong and murder. This is funny, but also credible: doesn't every mother think her son is a good boy at heart? Don't teenagers lead their lives with little reference to their parents?

Still, the big pleasure of the film lies in the gap between the reality it portrays and the fictions it evokes, and that implies a big reservation: I wonder whether the film really makes sense outside the genre conventions. Did I believe in Laura, the femme fatale played by Nora Zehetner, because she was a fully imagined and acted character, or because I recognised the stereotype? It's possible that once I've stopped being dazzled by the perfection of Brick's hommage, it will seem shallow or silly; it's possible, too, that people who aren't already taken with the trench-coated noir detective genre will be merely bored by it. But right now I can't think of a thing in Brick that even could be done differently or that I'd want to see done differently. How many films can you say that about?