You don't have to have read Dashiell Hammett's crime novels to have a sense of the cynical, hard-boiled style he helped forge in the 1920s and 30s. The definitive Humphrey Bogart movie The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first American film noir, and it set the template for every private eye movie which followed.
Then there's the Coen Brothers' movie Miller's Crossing, which draws on Hammett's The Glass Key (filmed with Alan Ladd back in the 40s). Or there's Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune reeking havoc callously playing two warring clans off against each other. Kurosawa based the story on Hammett's Red Harvest.
Then Sergio Leone ripped off Yojimbo to make A Fistful of Dollars. Which Walter Hill remade ten years ago in a gangster idiom as Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis. (Not that the Hammett estate saw a dime for any from any of these.) And of course there were two films in which Hammett himself appeared as a character: Jason Robards played him in Julia in 1977, and Frederic Forrest was Wim Wenders' Hammett in 1982.
In short, Hammett's work gets around. Even so, there's never been a Hammett movie like this one. For a start, none of the major characters is old enough to drink (which doesn't stop them from circling other illicit substances). And instead of the urban jungle we're used to seeing in film noir, the setting is a contemporary suburban American high school.
Here Brendan (the excellent Joseph Gordon Levitt, once of 3rd Rock from the Sun, and more recently the hero in Mysterious Skin) infiltrates a drug ring wrapped up in the disappearance - and maybe the murder - of his ex girlfriend, Emily.
So far so Twin Peaks. But if these kids look ordinary, they sound like Sam Spade after a rough night. 'I bet you got every rat in town together and said "Show your hands" if any of them've actually seen the Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets,' says a sidekick known as The Brain.
Writer-director Rian Johnson certainly has the lingo down pat. Just on a verbal level, this is the richest teen flick since Heathers. But even if Levitt copes manfully with the badinage, you do have to wonder what the point of this bizarre cultural transplant might be. The graft doesn't really take, especially when it comes to the female characters: whatever their other attributes, teenage girls can't do femme fatale.
Johnson can direct though: when Brendan finally gains an audience with 'The Pin' (as in 'Kingpin' - played with a dandy cape and a limp by a cast-way-against-type Lukas Haas) it's in a squat basement room that's both completely mundane and unsettlingly sinister. Here the teen drug lord wheels and deals, while upstairs his mom prepares milk and cookies. Low angles accentuate the looming ceiling. At one point the camera seems to take the perspective of the ceiling fan, rotating around the room in a vertiginous stupor that's so quintessentially noir you wonder why no one's thought of it before.
Cool and undoubtedly culty, Brick is an ingenious calling card movie and at the very least a welcome curio. But it doesn't add up to a hill of beans.