Students in a contemporary California high school t talking and butting heads like characters out of the 1940s crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It's a stunt, but a good one, so it should be duck soup for you yeggs. Debuting director and screenwriter Rian Johnson stakes his claim to a potent future in film based on the passion and craft he pours into Brick. A spoof would have been easy. Instead, Johnson plunges off the deep end, risking ridicule by shaping this spellbinder with grit and gravitas. There are times when Johnson loses his balance and his pitch, but in cookie-cutter Hollywood you have to admire a young filmmaker with moxie. "Sensational" is the word for Joseph Gordon-Levitt (equally striking in Mysterious Skin), who as Brendan, the teen outsider who becomes a budding Bogart when his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) is found dead near a sewer. With the help of his pal the Brain (Matt O'Leary), Brendan ts playing detective. He rubs up against the sexual wiles of two babes, Laura (Nora Zehetner) and Kara (Meagan Good), slaps around a stoner (Noah Segan) in Bogie fashion and — in the film's most thrilling scene — plays matador with a killer car in a parking lot. The trail ultimately leads him to the Pin (Lukas Haas, dead-on creepy), a drug dealer who doesn't lose an ounce of menace just because he lives with his mom. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin gives the film a seductive gleam of danger — just the thing to draw us into Johnson's tantalizing web. Like the Maltese Falcon Hammett made famous, Johnson's Brick is the stuff that dreams are made of.