DIRECTED BY Curtis Hanson
STARRING Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer
Opens January 17, Cert 15, 118 mins
In which the woolly hat and zip-up hoodie do for Eminem what the white suit did for Travolta, and the bulging black binliner slung over his shoulder is as iconic a prop as James Dean's rifle. Anti-glamour is the new glamour for Marshall Mathers fans, whose already vast numbers will be expanded by this superbly crafted, openly self-mythologising vehicle. It's not easy to make pop stars click as movie stars (ask Madge, for one), but Hanson and writer Scott Silver have pulled it off. Neither too grittily "real" or schmaltzily sell-out, 8 Mile walks and talks the fine line it needs to.
It helps that Em doesn't try too hard, and happens to have, by accident or design, intense on-screen presence. His eyes brood like a quiet storm, veering inches from viciousness. The producers' (including Jimmy Iovine's) boasts that 8 Mile will do for hip-hop what Saturday Night Fever did for disco 25 years ago hold true. It's often as boorish and nasty as we tend to forget that film was; it's also as uplifting as Rocky, and lucks into magic with similar animal grace. It'll thrill fans and fascinate floaters.
Selectively based on Eminem's early life, it hangs with white trash wannabe rapper Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr (Eminem), who in 1995 lives with his mom (Basinger, enjoying playing against type with the director who won her an Oscar) and her abusive man in a tawdry trailer park. Rabbit struts the mean streets of Detroit, on the wrong side of the tracks. He's a factory worker by day, punk-ass arsonist by night, dreaming of demos and studio time. But he's sweet to his kid sister and defends gays, so we know he's all heart deep down. He freezes at his first "battle" (rap contest), despite the support of buddies like Phifer, an MC who spots his genius. He romances wild-eyed fangirl Murphy with a shag up against a wall (very Quadrophenia). Murphy, never one to underact, plays it like Courtney Love on bad acid, which, in context, is absolutely the correct decision.
When she cheats on him with a rival and Rabbit gets beaten up by that rival's gang, he's no longer lacking in determination and motivation. At the next battle he meets (or rather, escapes) his destiny, rapping like a man possessed and wiping the floor with his gutted opponents. That we're rooting for him in such a potentially corny big-showdown climax is high praise to Hanson's skill and Eminem's new-found guile.
Our hero's discomfort as the only white guy on the block ("Yo, Elvis," his peers sneer) is shrewdly managed. There's a tender moment where we see Rabbit scribbling down rhymes as his sister colours in drawings of trees, which is almost saying something about the nature of art. But 8 Mile doesn't risk pretension: it moves in straight lines, sharp as an arrow. "Lose yourself," urges the truculent theme song: enthusiast or sceptic, you will. The best rebel-music movie in years.
Rating: 4 / 10