8 Mile (2002) Movie Review

The question everyone had coming into “8 Mile”, the new movie by director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) was: Can Eminem act? Well, the answer is maybe. Yes, Eminem, white rapper extraordinaire, can indeed act; but that’s taking into consideration Eminem is essentially playing himself in a movie that closely mirrors his own rise to stardom. I would need to see the rapper in another movie, one that isn’t so close to him, to be sure about his acting ability.

“8 Mile” stars Eminem as Jimmy “Rabbit”, a would-be white rapper living in his mother’s trailer park home, working at a auto plant by day and attempting to break into “the game” by night. The “game” is the arena of professional rappers (i.e. the guys that get paid for doing it). Although he’s white, Rabbit isn’t out of his elements; he was born in the streets of Detroit and knows how to handle himself. He hangs out with a small posse of friends including Future (Mekhi Phifer), a MC at a local club called The Shelter that hosts weekly rapping “battles”, where two rappers get on stage and attempt to out-rap each other. The crew constantly talks about making it big, even though no one has yet come close.

The screenplay by Scott Silver is essentially a Rags to Riches one. Director Curtis Hanson seems very aware of the subject matter and the pitfalls of the genre, and attempts to go out of his way to avoid the usual cliché. Despite Hanson’s visual flair and the presence of hip-hop, “8 Mile” is too familiar for its own good. To be fair, “8 Mile” does end rather un-Rags to Riches like. In fact, the ending is very abrupt, perhaps too much so. Also, what was the point of the movie being set in the 1990s? Is there a sequel in the works to be set later in the millennium?

The real star of “8 Mile” is the music. The movie is end-to-end hip-hop. Eminem obviously wrote the lyrics that he uses during the movie’s many rap battles, and the film uses real street rappers (and some known ones) to fill out the ranks of the battling rappers. The beat is consistently good and they make you move. Also, characters dress in hip-hop fashion and throw hip-hop slang around like it’s going out of style. This is definitely not a film for anyone unfamiliar, or dislikes, that cultural niche.

Eminem’s love interest is Brittany Murphy (“Don’t Say a Word”), who plays the skank almost too well. (If you don’t know what a skank is, ask your kids.) Murphy is appropriately trashy and lusty, not to mention undependable. Which also describes Kim Basinger, who plays Rabbit’s mother Stephanie. The epitome of trailer trash, Stephanie’s big future plan is to wait for her young boyfriend’s settlement check to come in so she can pay her rent. I think Basinger is employing some kind of southern accent, although I’m not sure why since the movie supposedly takes place in Detroit.

Let me say again that I think “8 Miles” is a good movie, just not a great one. The rap battles have excitement in them, and there is plenty of physical violence as Rabbit’s crew clashes with a rival crew called the Free World. The Free World’s leader is the reigning rap champ at the Shelter, and it’s against him that Rabbit chokes up in the film’s first Act. The movie becomes Rabbit’s journey to find enough courage and confidence in himself to actually do something once he gets onstage.

Beyond the above points, the movie fails to make me really care about Rabbit or his plight. Rabbit is unquestionably our hero, but the guy is not all that easy to like. His friends rally around him at every opportunity, and the film treats would-be rappers like Rabbit as if they were would-be sports stars, which is rather odd. Unlike sports, the judging of a rapper’s potential is really subjective. And although the movie tries to convince us that people are hanging onto Rabbit in hopes that he will make it big and bring them along for the ride, I just didn’t buy it. The movie keeps telling us (through its characters) that Rabbit is a rapping genius, but I keep wondering how they’re so sure about this when the only time Rabbit really shows that he’s a good rapper (re: not genius IMO) is in the end?

Regardless, “8 Mile” is a terrific looking movie. Hanson has developed a very good style for the film’s nighttime interior scenes, giving it an ethereal glow with dull green colors. The soundtrack rivals that of “The Crow” for sheer coolness. Combined that with Eminem’s better-than-expected performance, and “8 Mile” was a successful movie by a lot of standards. He certainly did much better than his fellow musician-turn-actors Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, that’s for sure.

Curtis Hanson (director) / Scott Silver (screenplay)
CAST: Eminem …. Rabbit
Kim Basinger …. Stephanie Smith
Brittany Murphy …. Alex
Mekhi Phifer …. Future
Chloe Greenfield …. Lily
Evan Jones …. Cheddar Bob

Buy 8 Mile on DVD