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Old noir for a new generation

'Brick' is an homage to many classic films, but will young audiences get it?

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"Brick" is a contemporary film noir set among high school students in San Clemente, Calif. This makes it sound like a spoof, but for the most part the movie is deadly serious. Writer-director Rian Johnson clearly loves the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels - and the movies derived from them - far too much to monkey around with the formula.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a cool slacker whose ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) disappears after a series of mysterious, panicked phone calls to him. In tracking her down, he enlists the services of the class geek genius, the Brain (Matt O'Leary), and warily joins forces with the contentious school principal (Richard Roundtree, far from his "Shaft" days). He runs up against the drama club diva (Meagan Good); a muscle-bound enforcer (Noah Fleiss); a come-hither tease (Nora Zehetner); and the Pin (Lukas Haas, far from his "Witness" days), the local drug lord who wields a falcon-crested cane. (Falcon, as in "Maltese." Get it?)

One of the obvious antecedents for this film is Alan Parker's regrettable "Bugsy Malone," where children (and a 13-year-old Jodie Foster) played cops and robbers. "Brick" is a lot better than that film if only because it's not nearly as slick. Johnson seems to be finding his way through the movie as he goes along. Since he obviously cares about his conceit, his clumsiness is sort of endearing. Most teen pictures are so vapid and machine-tooled that they might as well have been made by 60-year-old hacks. "Brick" has the freshness that comes with trying something for the first time.

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