Rian Johnson's astonishing, elegant reinvention of the film noir genre -- set in a contemporary Californian high school -- does something only a handful of films have ever done: It feels completely familiar and absolutely original, all at once.
The movie opens with your standard Sam Spade deal: Out of the blue, the shamus gets a call from a dame he used to squire. She's scared. In trouble. All worked up about something. She says a lot of stuff he doesn't understand, and then she gets spooked and hangs up. That's the last time he ever hears from her.
The shamus -- played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, late of "3rd Rock from the Sun" and more recently of "Mysterious Skin" -- sets out to get some answers, which involves shaking up a few trees and seeing what falls.
All the film-noir elements are in place, but the new setting gives everything a rich new life: The hard-boiled jargon of the 1940s feels like new slang, the raw, roiling emotions of adolescence lend every moment a charge of danger, and the intersecting agendas of various players in the larger drama ... well, that's high-school, isn't it?
There's a femme who might be fatal, played by "Everwood's" Nora Zehetner with a great vintage wardrobe. There's a shady character, played by Lukas Haas with a limp, a cape and a bird fixation. And there's a snarling authority figure in the form of the vice principal, played by Richard Roundtree, the artist formerly known as Shaft.
If any of the actors were being ironic, the whole thing would come crashing down. But writer-director Johnson keeps his film coiled as tightly as its plot, employing a stark visual sensibility that makes every shot tense and angular, every character isolated within a larger frame. "Brick" is a remarkable debut, and one of the year's best films.
Universal's enhanced-widescreen DVD has a modest supplemental section: There's a cast-and-crew commentary track featuring director Johnson, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, costume designer Michele Polsch and co-stars Zehetner and Noah Segan; there's no production featurette, but the reel of deleted and extended scenes includes a selection of stills to illustrate a few of Johnson's directorial anecdotes. Zehetner and Segan's audition tapes round out the package.
STUDIO: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: August 8, 2006
TIME: 110 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: French and Spanish subtitles; audio commentary; deleted scenes; audition footage.
INTERNET SITE: brickmovie.net