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Retro Rental: Backpedaling From ‘Premium Rush’ With ‘Brick’ and ‘The Missing Person’

Retro Rental: 'Brick' + 'The Missing Person
Bergman Lustig Productions/Columbia Pictures/The 7th Floor

[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you the "Retro Rental," an older film on disco or download that connects with the here-and-now ...]

When actors step up to the roles that make them big-time, it falls to long-term fans to inform all those come-lately types that, yes, long before they had mega-million paydays and films with even bigger budgets, the stars you love seeing splashed across the screen 60-feet high in your multiplex were in — and good in — great films before that.

Take, for example, this week’s ‘Premium Rush,’ where Michael Shannon is a bad cop facing down bike messenger Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt, of course, got to be in ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ earlier this summer, so he’s hardly a hidden talent; Shannon, at some point in the future, is going to face down Superman as General Zod in Zach Snyder’s Supes reboot, which will certainly do good things for his profile.

But if you check out ‘Premium Rush’ and get intrigued by its stars, there are plenty of places to find them doing good work — and for this week’s Retro Rental, it turns out that you can do a great double-bill with both actors in similar roles in great indie movies. Similar roles, by the way, but very different films …

Let’s start with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and with a film you may even have heard of — writer-director Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick,’ from 2005. I had the chance to see ‘Brick’ at Sundance in ’04 as a last-minute screening on my last day, and I didn’t know anything about it. And, well, I was knocked over; Johnson’s script sets a classic noir crime fiction tale in a sunny California high school with Gordon-Levitt as the fast-thinking kid, who, like any hard-boiled hero, won’t let the death of his ex stand. Like most great noir detectives, Levitt takes beatings far more often than he dishes them out, but he’s also, in private eye tradition, the guy who’s not going to let certain things stand without him doing something about them. (In one of the film’s funny-but-perfect moments, the vice principal calls Levitt in for a chewing-out, like any cop captain would to a P.I. in a noir film … and the vice principal is played by, yes, Richard Roundtree.)

Meanwhile, Shannon’s gotten to put his stamp on laying a different kind of PI.. as well, in writer-director Noah Buschel’s 2009 film ‘The Missing Person.’ Shannon’s rumpled, brown-suited P.I. gets woken up by a phone call — he’s supposed to find a man at the train station and follow him from Chicago to L.A. And if it weren’t for the fact that the phone is a cell, you’d be hard-pressed to determine if ‘The Missing Person’ is a classic from a bygone era or a new film, at first. But what develops — as we learn more about Shannon’s character, how he got off the force as an ex-cop, why he used to no live in Chicago, why he does now — slowly makes clear to us that ‘The Missing Person’s’ real mystery isn’t the man Shannon has to follow but, rather, the mystery we all face: How do we go on in the face of tragedy and loss?

And if you think these films sound down or dour, they aren’t. ‘Brick’ has dialogue snappier than gum that hasn’t even been made yet, while ‘The Missing Person’ gets comedy out of Shannon’s weird, lumpy body language and old-school air. (At one point, Shannon’s gumshoe is harassed by a cop on a Segway for both smoking and jaywalking, a clash between our modern overly-manicured age and the more rough-and-tumble bygone era Shannon’s dick represents.) Both films are funny, and both performances have their moments of real skill and hard-won humanity, actual emotion to go along with their pitches.

Anyone, it’s said, could be “good” in a blockbuster movie — surround your uncle Ned or aunt Connie with $250 million in explosions and chase scenes and CGI and even they will be interesting. But in ‘Brick’ and ‘The Missing Person,’ both Levitt and Shannon took bare-bone budgets and familiar plots and made them full and rich, combining both art and entertainment, small smartness and big ideas. Levitt and Shannon are about to be household names; watch ‘Brick’ and ‘The Missing Person’ and you’ll understand how much they deserve to be.

‘Brick’ and ‘The Missing Person’ are both on Netflix streaming.

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