"Brick" Could be Stronger
Brick (2005) Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner. Written and directed by Rian Johnson.
I really wanted to like Brick. To a degree, I do.
I'm a fan of noir detective novels, and in many ways, Brick can hold its own with even the Dashiell Hammett novels filmmaker Rian Johnson emulates. Brick offers a fast pace, a tightly wound mystery, a tough but smart hero, and tempting but untrustworthy dames (i.e. chicks).
Applying these private eye conventions to a high school movie could have been revolutionary. In some ways it was.
Rian Johnson should also be commended for taking teenagers seriously enough to offer serious subject matter and a serious tone. Rather than the light-hearted comedic fluff usually pushed on young audiences, Johnson offers the first serious, dark, gritty, noir film for high schoolers since 1985's That Was Then, This Is Now.
Johnson also takes young audiences seriously by offering strong cinematic quality. This independent film has a great look, and the cast of mostly unknowns sparkles.
So why don't I love this film? Because it is limited. Because it is not as gutsy as it needed to be.
Hammett's Sam Spade was a working class hero who boldly challenged the rich and powerful. Spade also mouthed off to cops, hoods, and others who in real life menaced the working men in Hammett's target audience. In the Maltese Falcon's conclusion, Spade sends rich and refined characters to their deaths. Hammett did not hesitate to cross cultural boundaries.
Rian Johnson does hesitate. In Brick, all the characters Joseph Gordon-Levitt punches out are teenagers. Every character he threatens is in his own age group.
Much of the plot centers around a drug kingpin known widely as "the Pin." We are told the Pin is 26, but the actor portraying him looks as young as those playing the high schoolers. Worse yet, though the Pin supposedly heads a successful drug empire, he still lives with his mom. The Pin is an adult in name only. When the Pin threatens our hero and is interrupted by his mom coming in to serve the boys juice, it reinforces the fact that Johnson will not let his young hero cross the age-boundaries, won't let him threaten or even inconvenience adults. If this hero is going to disrupt the operations of a drug business, it must be a business run by kids.
Shaft vs. Spade, Jr.
There is one scene, and only one scene, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands up to an authority figure who is clearly older than himself. Unfortunately, this scene is the film's most egregious.
In every good noir detective novel, the gumshoe must argue with police who may mean well but who try to bully our hero and who threaten to get in his way. In Brick, we find a scene where Gordon-Levitt must argue with Richard Roundtree (Shaft). Roundtree acknowledges Gordon-Levitt has, in the past, helped him catch a teenaged drug-dealer. (See, grown-ups? This kid's on YOUR side. Don't worry.) Our tough guy hero tells Roundtree he didn't do it to be helpful. "I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed." They argue about the new case. After some mutual snarling, Roundtree agrees to stay out of Gordon-Levitt's way on the condition that when Gordon-Levitt solves the murder, he will let Roundtree make the collar. Otherwise, Roundtree insists, he'll take in Gordon-Levitt.
Roundtree's faith in the teenager's detective skills is a bit hard to swallow, but otherwise this is a great scene — except for one other problem. Roundtree's character is not a cop. He is an assistant vice principal.
Filmmaker Rian Johnson seems to think teenagers cannot exist outside the world of school; so as a result, this film takes place in some alternate reality where law-enforcement is the responsibility of school administrators. (At the film's conclusion, Gordon-Levitt brings down the murderer by informing Roundtree so that Roundtree can make the bust.) Rian Johnson is unwilling to cross boundaries even when plausibility demands it.
No Match for Mars
Ultimately, Gordon-Levitt serves the interests of the only adult in the film while he challenges teenagers left and right. In two separate scenes, our young hero punches out a fellow teenager, not in self-defense, but for calculated reasons. He harasses and accuses teenagers. But the adult, he can only snarl at, then serve.
Hollywood has long been afraid to show heroic youths challenging adults. But as a tribute to Hammett, Brick needed to be bolder than that.
This film was released after the premiere of "Veronica Mars," which had the boldness Brick lacked. In the pilot episode, young Veronica Mars not only stands up to rich kids and teenaged bikers, she challenges the police and emerges victorious after exposing police corruption and ruining their case against a teenager. By the end of Season 1, Mars has not only brought down teenaged criminals, she has brought down a teacher, exposed the crimes of a billionaire business leader and an aging movie star, and won battles of the wits against a professional security specialist and a private investigator. Mars may not be much with her mitts, but she embodies the boldness and empowerment of Sam Spade more than Brick's protagonist can.
Coulda been a Contender
Brick has much to celebrate, but it could have been so much more. Rian Johnson has given us a teenaged hero who is confident, tough, smart, and self-reliant. This character is fun to watch. But Johnson placed this character in a world limited to the high school, unrealistically isolated from the rest of the universe.
While teenagers in real life may live on the fringes of society, they do not live apart from it. For better or worse, teenagers must deal with adults every day.
Brick offers an exciting character. How much more exciting it would have been to see this character at work in a world we could recognize as our own.