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Americans may not live in an empire, or even an axis, of evil—or so we’ve been told—but we sure do have a taste for the stuff. Ruthlessly unpredictable gangsters, deranged child rapists, and cannibalistic serial killers fill our screens, both large and small. Given this glut, it helps to have a sense of humor when foraying into our subconscious underworld. A cinematic trifecta of vice—drugs, gambling, and sex, with a side of murder in all three—Brick, Lucky Number Slevin, and Basic Instinct 2 offer a full inventory of iniquities, but they largely fail to treat them with a suitably wry attitude. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the two that were directed by Brits that are fatally overeager.

First-time writer-director Rian Johnson’s Brick opens with a snippet of spaghetti-Western music, an ironic device often used in movies that transplant stark tales of good and evil to everyday suburban climes. This is not the film’s only neo-noir cliché, but it quickly becomes hard to keep track of—or care about—such infractions. Brick’s modern-high-school translation of Dashiell Hammett is simply too much fun. The opening scene, with deeply alienated teenager Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contemplating a blonde corpse in a storm sewer, may seem too heavy—or too familiar. (River’s Edge, anyone?) But once the movie kicks into gear, it never falters, right up through the final credits, which are driven by a song so perfectly suited to the task that it would be wrong to identify it here.

The dead girl is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), and she’s the principal source of Brendan’s alienation. He’s been eating lunch alone ever since she broke up with him, seduced not by another guy but by the lure of drugs. (Some of which come, just so you know, in bricks.) The film slips into flashback to reveal that Emily had called Brendan just before she disappeared, asking for help. Now that she’s dead, it’s his duty to do what he can. With the help of his only friend—a nerdy brain called, yup, the Brain (Matt O’Leary)—Brendan begins to unravel Emily’s fate. Doing so requires talking with two clearly fatal femmes, Laura (Nora Zehetner) and Kara (Meagan Good), and ultimately infiltrating the drug gang led by the Pin (Lukas Haas), a cape-wearing, cane-flourishing dandy. The latter task means tangling with various athletes, enforcers, and other teenage beasts, so Brendan’s psychosomatic injuries are soon complemented by genuine bruises.

The point of these recurrent beatings is that Brendan is no Superman, although instinctively he is. He deciphers the myriad conspiracies of his school—a place so tough that the peace-keeping assistant vice principal is Richard “Shaft” Roundtree—and he plays the bad guys like chumps. It’s only the bad gals that, in classic noir fashion, Brendan can’t quite handle. Although he doesn’t trust Laura, he recklessly lets her get close to him. And one scene with Kara, who drips lies as she applies geisha makeup, makes the games-playing members of the drama club seem even more ominous than they probably did at your high school.

If Good is playing an intentionally over-the-top role, the wonder of Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan is that he seems entirely natural. Always in a spotless white T-shirt and spouting tough-guy dialogue that he renders as dramatically credible as it is conceptually absurd, he’s a classic loner in a world where it’s every kid for himself. (The only one of his classmates who has a visible parent is the Pin, whose mom cluelessly offers cereal and apple juice to her son’s gang members.) If the notion that Brendan is all alone in the world is a narcissistic fantasy, it’s one that nearly every middle-class adolescent has indulged at one time or another.

Reduced to its mix of film-noir and teen-flick plot points, including an unfortunately hackneyed final revelation, Brick is not all that remarkable. What carries it is unassailable confidence, a canny sense of style—Johnson is smart enough, for example, to forgo the expected voice-over commentary—and expert timing. Using stylish but not too showy dissolves, jump cuts, and wide-angle shots, the director evokes John Huston, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Hughes without resorting to slavish imitation, let alone parody. Although Brick doesn’t come out of nowhere, it does end up in a class of its own.

Lucky Number Slevin opens with two murder-robberies, but the movie truly begins when a guy in a wheelchair materializes in a waiting room and tells another guy he wants to recount a tale. The first guy, played by Bruce Willis, introduces himself as Smith, although he’ll later be known as Mr. Goodkat. He’s an assassin but also a storyteller, and the latter vocation is the more important: This is a meta gangster tale, working a narrative con on several of its central characters and pretty much all of its viewers.

Not everything that Smith says is true, but he’s far from the movie’s only liar. There’s also the title character himself, who is played by Josh Hartnett and whose name is—of course—not actually Slevin. He arrives in New York and moves into the apartment of a man he claims is a friend, and keeps protesting that he’s been mistaken for someone else. (One consequence of the ambiguous identity is at least as many beatdowns as Brendan suffers in Brick.) Slevin’s is quite a yarn, but it’s nothing compared to the one being told by screenwriter Jason Smilovic (a TV veteran) and director Paul McGuigan (the Scot responsible for The Acid House, a distant cousin of Trainspotting). They keep spinning variations to the very end of this overcomplicated tale, by which time nearly everyone and everything is exhausted.

Because an endless series of twists is both the movie’s essence and its locomotion, it would be counterproductive (and just too time-consuming) to summarize the plot. So let’s just introduce the central players. There’s Goodkat, who’s working for both the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley, the credits call him), two formerly allied illicit-gambling kingpins who now hate each other, fear each other, and live in fortified penthouse apartments across the street from each other. (Symmetry is one of Lucky Number Slevin’s fetishes.) Each gang lord independently has Slevin kidnapped and demands the gambling debt the kid owes. The Boss adds a wrinkle: Slevin can have the obligation forgiven if he’ll just murder the Rabbi’s gay son. Why gay? Because the movie wants to be as contemporary as it is retro, a screwball noir set in the oh-so-modern world.

Tracking all this activity as best he can is a NYPD detective, Brikowsky (Stanley Tucci), who’s excited by the news that the long-absent Goodkat is back in town. The only major character who doesn’t appear to be directly involved in some conspiracy is Lindsey (Lucy Liu), Slevin’s flirty neighbor, who enters explaining that “I’m short for my height.” Apparently a blithering innocent, she quickly falls into bed with Slevin, appreciates his Sean Connery–as–Bond impression—it’s only a movie, see?—and offers to help him with mystery-cracking tips she learned from watching Columbo. But she turns out to be a city coroner, which puts her rather closer to the multiple-homicide action than is initially suggested.

At one point, Slevin explains that he has a medical condition that prevents him from feeling anxiety. That’s another fib, but it’s an apt one: Lucky Number Slevin is a carefree exercise in murder and retribution, more concerned with style than the moral implications of its protagonist’s crusade. It turns out that Slevin is righting an old wrong (curiously, this is the third vigilante parable from Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s new company since they split from Disney last year), but there’s no great satisfaction in his quest for justice. Even with a twice-broken nose and a gun in his hand, Hartnett remains a lightweight, and having the smirky Willis as backup hardly makes him more authoritative.

But then, even Sean Connery or Peter Falk couldn’t have grounded this tale, which tiresomely flaunts its artificiality. Accepting a movie’s deceptions can be part of the fun, of course. But it’s worth noting that almost everyone who buys Slevin’s and Goodkat’s fables ends up dead.

Beginning with 1985’s Jagged Edge, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas enjoyed a triumphant decadelong run, peddling treachery, murder, and sex as violence. It was only when he tried to sell sex as sex that the American media suddenly decided to expose Eszterhas as a panderer. Showgirls was indeed a bad movie, but so were most of the others that bore the writer’s credit, including his most risqué success, 1992’s Basic Instinct.

Eszterhas didn’t have anything to do with Basic Instinct 2, but its makers have clearly studied the screenwriter’s work. In fact, this long-delayed sequel is as indebted to another Eszterhas script, Sliver, as to the original Instinct. All three movies are about people who like to kill almost as much as they like to fuck, but only Sliver and the second Instinct share a fascination with the erotic power of glass-clad skyscrapers.

The new movie opens in another ready-made metaphor for sex and power, a racing sports car, as glamorously sociopathic sex-thriller novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) speeds through a modernistic London, a drugged soccer star in the passenger seat. With Catherine in full control of the apparently kinky scenario, she has an orgasm, the car splashes into the Thames, and the footballer drowns. Exactly how all these things could happen so neatly is unclear, which makes the scene an ideal setup for what follows.

Arrested for murder, Catherine is evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), who proclaims she has a “risk addiction.” Catherine seems to like this diagnosis, because once she’s released, she moves in on Michael. He becomes the equivalent of the Michael Douglas character in the first film, unable to resist Catherine’s brazen mind—or body—games, even though he should know better. (The audience sure does, which is one reason the movie has been greeted with weary disdain.)

As soon as Michael agrees to take her as a patient—an obvious conflict of interest, given that he’s already evaluated her for the court—a new scenario begins to revolve around him. Catherine teases Michael sexually, but that’s not the half of it. She also stage-manages a personal and professional collapse—Michael, too, is being taken for a ride—that involves the shrink’s ex-wife Denise (Indira Varma), her investigative-reporter lover, Adam (Hugh Dancy), perhaps-corrupt cop Roy (David Thewlis), and Michael’s colleagues, notably Dr. Milena Gardosh (Charlotte Rampling). (It’s hard not to think of Brick, with Catherine as the provocative new girl in school, alienating Michael’s longtime friends and completely messing up the established cafeteria-seating patterns.) While someone leaves a trail of garroted, postcoital corpses around town, Catherine choreographs Michael’s breakdown, prompting Dr. Gardosh to say things like “How Lacanian.”

Actually, how Eszterhasian. Basic Instinct 2 was written by Leora Barish and Henry Bean and directed by Michael Caton-Jones, who did a rather better job with Scandal, which was based on the case of a real (and British) femme fatale, Christine Keeler. But the principal thing that distinguishes this movie from its predecessor, directed by Dutch sex-crime enthusiast Paul Verhoeven, is the setting. The new Instinct is another Cool Britannia flick, depicting London as the gleaming high-rise city it decidedly isn’t. Most prominent of the architectural props is 30 St Mary Axe, a bulbous tower known widely as the Gherkin (or, more tellingly, the Erotic Gherkin).

The most prominent of London’s recently built corporate cathedrals, this glass tower is an unlikely place for a shrink’s office, but of course David has a large room with a view there. As upscale as the Gherkin is, here it’s meant to seem as kinky as the Soho dive where Catherine screws an S&M enthusiast as an obsessed David peeps through a skylight.

The film’s most playful aspect is Catherine’s insistence on smoking where it’s not allowed, lighting up with a Gherkin lighter. This is considerably more amusing than the inevitable sequel to the first movie’s bare-crotch moment, in which Catherine opens her robe to reveal a body that suggests something from an X-rated wax museum. Seduction doesn’t look all that seductive in Basic Instinct 2, a movie in which even the temptations of the flesh appear more architectonic than erotic.CP