But Brick represents an impossible dream: the recycling with conviction of cinema's most calloused and beloved genre for application to contemporary middle-class life. Johnson is drop-dead serious, and his strategy's unavoidable irony is buried so deeply, you might just forget it altogether. Hammett redone remains Hammett half-done, but while the plates are in the air, Brick is a spectacle of nerve.
We're given little reason for hope at the outset, with a found corpse and a brooding loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, late of 3rd Rock From the Sun and 2005's Mysterious Skin) contemplating grief and guilt. Flashing back in time, Gordon-Levitt's Brendan, bitterly nursing heartbreak like a good Bogart, is lured into his ex-girlfriend's hophead troubles with a single mysterious phone call. Thereafter, he starts snooping, figuring out "who she's been eating with," how deeply she was involved with local drug lord the Pin (Lukas Haas, with a cane and an army of henchmen), and why she was killed. Every step of the process is a deft shadow of noir logic just showing up at the right party or beating the tar out of the right thug sends unspoken messages to "the right people." Brendan's relationship with the SoCal high school's no-nonsense assistant vice principal (Richard Roundtree) wittily echoes the shamus-cop dealings of scores of postwar thrillers.
In this world, classes are never attended, the characters occupy the town's empty fringelands and alleys, and parents are all but invisible (as in Peanuts, which shares its odd philosophical DNA with noir). At times the jazzy, tougher-than-leather lingo feels like a pose, but Johnson keeps his actors' leashes viciously tight, and no one riffs they all fucking mean it, particularly Gordon-Levitt, who handles vast quantities of arch dialogue, much of it piercingly funny, with Montgomery Clift-like earnestness. ("I gave you Jared to see him eaten," Brendan tells Roundtree's disciplinarian, "not to see you fed.")
Blessedly, Johnson does not indulge in narration, and his characters are never self-consciously cool, just boiling with misery. There are potholes: Brick's plot doesn't yield any surprises, the movie's very concept keeps it limited and predictable the tithe you have to pay for noir if it's not 1948 and you're not Nicholas Ray and young audiences not schooled in the real McCoy may not fathom its fusty style.
What's beautiful about Brick, though, is the way that its yesteryear dynamics backlight and dramatize teen angst. Film noir's inherent cynicism is deployed here as a near-tears metaphor for preadult isolation, insecurity and self-destruction; it's such a simple fusion of potent American cultural ideas that it ends up seeming seminal.