8 Mile is formulaic. It’s the story of Rocky, but on the mic instead of in the ring. Or as one viewer put it, it’s a male version of Coal Miner’s Daughter. However you view it, it’s a story that’s been told before.
And yet, it works. The fact that our hero’s skill is rhyming instead of boxing is refreshing. The film, like Eminem’s eyes, is bleak and blue-gray, yet full of intensity and earnestness.
Handful of Eminem
R for Language, sexuality, violence, drug use
Rap star Eminem makes his debut as Jimmy Smith, a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit, whose life is modeled after Eminem’s. Rabbit lives with his mom and little sister in a dismal trailer in a dirt-poor section of Detroit.
His friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) sees the talent in Rabbit and convinces him to battle on stage at The Shelter with the other trash-talking rappers. Rabbit is a natural at playing the dozens; he’s got a quick mind and an ear for rhyme.
But Rabbit freezes in the spotlights, choking on stage fright. He’s booed off stage by the crowd, and he resumes his humble life working at the die factory. Throughout the film, this moment haunts him, a symbol of his very existence — full of potential but held back by fear.
We know he will get the chance to redeem himself later in the film, but for now, we must get to know his life and the people in it.
Sweet Home in a Trailer
The central part of the film is a series of vignettes. It explores Rabbit’s character, getting to know enough about him that we begin to care whether he can earn redemption. It also gives us a look at Detroit on the other side of the tracks, the other side of 8 Mile, as they say in the 313.
Rabbit and his friends talk about making a demo tape, making it big, and making it out, but none of them seems to know how to make that dream real. Nevertheless, Rabbit has the support of Alex (Brittany Murphy), his new girlfriend who believes in him like no one else. She knows, because she has seen him participates in ad-hoc rap sessions (8 Mile shows one at work and another while working on his car where he rewrites the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama on the spot).
A rival crew that actually has had some success is The Free World, and Rabbit and his friends are gunning for their position. The Free World handed Rabbit his defeat at the battle, and they continue to haunt him and taunt him, reminding him of his own failure.
Redemption Up Here
At one point Rabbit asks when do you stop living “up here” and start living “down here?” It’s wonderfully articulate for the circumstances. He’s asking, when do you acknowledge your dreams are just dreams and that the mundane business of actually pursuing them must take precedence? When do you grow up? When do you get real?
It’s only after this lesson fully sinks in that we begin to feel that Rabbit deserves to win back his respect. He reaches a point where he has matured, and at that point he’s earned the right to face his demons and have a chance at success.
A Question of Character
People praise Eminem’s acting, and frankly, he’s good in the role. So was Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Both men are good at playing themselves. If that makes a good actor, so be it.
There are some unfortunate characters, though. One is his mother, played by Kim Basinger, who was brought in simply to give the movie street cred in Hollywood. Her performance is not bad, but her character’s integrity is sacrificed for the sake of the film. In one scene she embarrasses Rabbit by talking about her sex life. It feels wildly out of place, but generates a laugh, as it was no doubt intended to do.
The other unfortunate characters are the members of The Free World. They start off on higher moral ground than Rabbit and his friends — Rabbit throws the first punch. But later they morph into movie bad guys, generic evil men with guns and money.
Rappaz RN Dainja
There are areas where 8 Mile excels. For example, it has a good sense of poverty and danger. Everything looks gray and muddy, as if it’s been raining for weeks. Rodrigo Prieto’s handheld photography keeps movie from feeling too stable or picturesque. The trailer, the factory, and the dilapidated streets are filled with the clutter of entropy.
When a gun is pulled, reactions are properly fearful. 8 Mile shows no chest-thumping invulnerability, like in action movies. Guns mean real danger. Two shots are fired in the film and they both have gravity and consequence. Violence is not glamorous here.
It is refreshing to see rap skills as the special talent of a movie character. Athleticism is often idolized in movies, as is becoming a star. But so far, being a good rapper hasn’t made it into a mainstream formula movie. 8 Mile will be eye-opening to some who don’t know what rapping is all about, and those who do know will be pleased to finally see it at their local theater. Rapping takes a real talent and 8 Mile shows what’s involved.
Except for the formula-driven story and a few unfortunately drawn characters, 8 Mile is a good drama, a gripping portrayal of poverty, and America’s first mainstream taste of rhyme skills on film.