8 Mile

In this corner: Eminem. The Enunciator. The Alliterator. The Detroit punk who can rhyme fourteen syllables a line. The Angry Rapper who must face the challenge that has KO'd many a contender before him: acting. And in this corner: the hordes who want the artist formerly known as Marshall Mathers to fall flat on his misogynistic, homophobic, race-baiting, mother-hating, gun-toting, tattoo-flaunting thirty-year-old ass.

Sorry, hordes. In 8 Mile, his film debut as aspiring rapper Jimmy Smith Jr., Eminem is on fire. It's too soon to tell if he can really act. But Eminem holds the camera by natural right. His screen presence is electric. His sulk — hooded eyes that suddenly spark with danger — has an intensity to rival James Dean's. And he reads lines with an offbeat freshness that makes his talk and his rap sound interchangeable. Just as it should be. Jimmy, known as Rabbit, competes in freestyle verbal battles against black rappers at a local club. Like Eminem, who did the same, Rabbit is pissed off plenty: at his mom (Kim Basinger) for slutting around; at his ex-girl (Taryn Manning) for pretending she's pregnant; at himself for choking in front of an audience. In his first scene in his first movie, Eminem pukes his guts out.

8 Mile, sharply directed by Curtis Hanson from a script by Scott Silver (who's a long way from the inanities of The Mod Squad), is a real movie, not a fast-buck package to exploit the fan base of a rap nonentity (hello, Vanilla Ice, goodbye). Hanson succeeds brilliantly at creating a world around Eminem that teems with hip-hop energy and truth.inematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros) lights Detroit like a scarred battlefield. Set in 1995, the film uses 8 Mile — the stretch of road that serves as Detroit's social and racial dividing line — as a hurdle for Rabbit. Stuck in a trailer park with his broke single mom and his adored kid sister, Lily (Chloe Greenfield), Rabbit takes a job at an auto plant so he can stop living in his dreams.p>ut the dream persists. His friend Future (an avid Mekhi Phifer), who hosts the hip-hop battles, sees Rabbit's potential. So does Alex (Brittany Murphy), the wanna-be model who itches to get close to Rabbit. Their quickie unprotected sex at the auto plant (she takes his hat off, otherwise they stay dressed) defines steamy. Murphy plays Alex with hot desperation and calloused vulnerability. She's dynamite.

Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) excels with actors. Basinger shines as the neglectful mom who bitches to Rabbit about her boyfriend ("He won't go down on me") and pegs her son as a born loser. Rabbit's support system is his crew: Sol (Omar Benson Miller), DJ Iz (De'Angelo Wilson) and Cheddar Bob (a scene-stealing Evan Jones).anson builds to a spectacular climax with Rabbit going three rounds at the club, ultimately taking on the reigning champ, Popa Doc (Anthony Mackie), in a rap showdown. It's Rocky and Apollo Creed, but this time the words fly like fists. Eminem wears the role like a second skin, but he's not totally cleaning out his closet. The Rocky stuff softens the film's edges (and boosts its box-office chances). Rabbit, who decries guns, plays dad to Lily and offers a handshake to a gay co-worker, isn't quite the bile-spewing convicted felon who wrote, "You never heard of a mind as perverted as mine." No matter. 8 Mile qualifies as a cinematic event by tapping into the roots of Eminem and the fury and feeling that inform his rap. Hanson spares us the rags-to-riches cliches by leaving Rabbit on the edge of success. The film ends not with a blast but with the peace that comes to a rapper who finds his voice at last. That kind of class is a big risk for a novice stepping into the movie ring. Eminem wins by a knockout.

From The Archives Issue 910: November 28, 2002