Well, they got the title right. Leaden, off-target, and unpersuasive, this SoCal-set teen noir would've been funny as a three-minute SNL sketch (high-school kids talking retro staccato like Raymond Chandler's tough molls and private dicks). But 110 minutes of the stuff is more fatal than the stolen kilo of tainted heroin sought by student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's also searching for his missing ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Not that he'd shed a tear for that dame, no matter if she broke his Bakelite heart.
The same age/genre mash-up was so much sweeter back in 1976's Bugsy Malone (with Jodie Foster, no less). Now the high-school hormones only curdle the mix. There's murder, pregnancy, dope, and even a Rubik's Cube—which only confuses the recipe further. Are we spoofing Dashiell Hammett or John Hughes? Is this The Maltese Breakfast Club or what?
First-time director Rian Johnson doesn't have any clearer idea than we do. The pity is that dogged shoe-leather detective Gordon-Leavitt (Mysterious Skin), who's quietly become the actor to watch of his generation, is dealt this cinematic dead-man's hand of a picture. You couldn't care less which of the criminal cast (including Witness' Lukas Haas, now a million miles from cute) gets offed; you don't know why actual teenagers would want to hear this pre–World War II lingo revived; you can guess the double-cross plot and final revelation from all the way across the schoolyard.
Brick's principal insight, vintage slang aside, is that high-school cliques are as rigorously structured and merciless as criminal gangs. Of course, you can get the same message, said better and in a language teens understand, every week on The OC.