Universal // 2002 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 14th, 2009
Every moment is another chance.
The biggest surprise about 8 Mile is that it doesn't suck. This is important to note, because it's a rap movie loosely based on Eminem's life. In fact, it's an admirably composed drama, mixing social commentary and freestyle rap battles. Credit where credit is due: Eminem can rap, and he can act. At least he can play himself very well.
Life is tough for Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith (Eminem). After breaking up with his girlfriend, he is forced to move back home with his alcoholic and abusive mother (Kim Basinger). It is 1995 in Detroit, and times are hard. Rabbit can find no other work except stamping metal in a destitute, ex-con riddled factory. His friends, especially Future (Mekhi Phifer) try to get Rabbit to go downtown in Detroit and participate in the weekly freestyle battles at the Shelter, but Rabbit lacks confidence, ashamed by his white trash upbringing, his skin color, and his own personal demons. He tries, but chokes on the mic and gets laughed out of the building.
After meeting the beautiful and ambitious Alex (Brittany Murphy), Rabbit starts to realize that the only escape from the economic spiral of Detroit is to make your own opportunities. He struggles to find his voice in the music scene, redoubles his efforts, and takes another stab at it. His rage, his anger, his fury all go into the pen and the microphone.
Loosely based on the life of rapper superstar Eminem, 8 Mile was the surprise hit of 2002, taking audiences by storm and making trucks of money. A gritty, urbane drama steeped in the poverty and desperation of Detroit, the drama was made for a relatively small $40 million, and went on to make almost half a billion dollars in combined theatrical and DVD release sales. Not too shabby.
Once you get past the initial gut reaction of having to watch an Eminem movie about Eminem, you realize that 8 Mile actually is a solid film. An ambitious trailer-trash white boy trying to make his way in Detroit's competitive rap scene essentially just recycles the underdog "you can make it if you try" story, but does so with stylish direction, a fantastic soundtrack, and genuine heart and passion for its characters and story. We've seen it before, but even the most clichéd of stories can be made to shine with the right direction and passion. How much of the story is romanticized and fictionalized is less important than appreciating that 8 Mile is a well-made and satisfying dramatic narrative, if a bit on the slow and predictable side.
For all the braggadocio and pomp of the freestyle, 8 Mile manages to hit that impressive middle ground between a romanticized view of Detroit and young kids trying to make something of their lives in a bad situation. These thugs talk tough, look tough, and act tough, but someone pulls out a gun and everyone gets scared -- visibly scared, even the toughest ones. These are just kids, trying to rap and become a rap star to escape the never-ending financial black hole of Detroit, where no jobs exist. Opportunities must be made. The kids battle as a method of stress relief, like boxing matches, but also because they have to believe that if they champion over all competitors, that somehow, fate will deal them a better hand, like it did for the rap heroes they listen to on the crummy tape decks in their lousy cars.
Rabbit lives in a trailer park with his alcoholic mother, her deadbeat boyfriend (no older than he is), and his little sister -- four people crammed into a tiny space. His car doesn't work. He punches metal in a bleak industrial factory crammed with ex-cons and welfare mothers. His friends dream of great and successful rap careers, but lack the ambition to take the next step beyond endless dreaming. Rabbit has the drive, but his own insecurities cripple his performances in the freestyle battles, and he gets laughed out of downtown. The turning point in the film comes when Rabbit acknowledges his white trash roots and his own dysfunction, and uses it for fuel. I can't imagine Eminem doing a solid job in any other role, but here as Rabbit, he is intense and authentic.
Kim Basinger does okay as Rabbit's depressed and abusive mother, but her performance is oddly empty and superfluous -- it works in the film, but omitting her role entirely would have probably also been fine. Mekhi Phifer and Brittany Murphy give solid performances as well, but the real surprise is Eminem. Maybe people naturally expect any kind of vanity project to be awful. It's almost disconcerting to watch 8 Mile and realize a strong, honest film exists beneath its rap star mantle. Curtis Hanson directs the film with emphasis on the grit and grime of Detroit, with deep, long shadows, and while the material is oddly simplistic given his track record, he handles it with his normal strong execution.
8 Mile hits Blu-Ray with a solid presentation. The film is shot in heavy shadow, and the 1080p hits the mark perfectly, with sumptuous black levels, the important metric in a film this shady (no pun intended). Detail is slightly soft, but there are no noticeable print damage or edge issues, and color tones are natural, bordering on muted. Some grain is evident, but appears stylistic, a gritty undertone pervasive in its urban exploration of Detroit. This won't be a title to demo your system with, but the superb black levels alone justify the upgrade.
Audio comes in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation, which gets no complaints from this jury. Dialogue is clear and clean, with aggressive and rumbling bass response that roars to life during the claustrophobic-sounding rap battles. The environmental music sounds great here, perfectly captured. The film is mostly dialogue-centric, clean and natural-sounding, but rear channels don't get as much action as they should, save for the musical sequences. You may find yourself reaching for the volume to adjust levels on occasion, as dialogue can occasionally sound muted during quieter moments, like in the trailer park. For dubs, we get both Spanish and French with their own DTS 5.1 tracks, which is a pretty nice treatment for dubs.
Extras are on par with the standard DVD release: we get a making-of featurete, uncensored rap battles and the video for "Superman" by Eminem. The featurette is okay; your standard interview with cast and crew, but the uncensored rap battles are the most fun. During the long, torturous shoots in the Shelter set, the large cast of extras got restless, so director Hanson improvised a rap battle between extras. Whoever wanted to get up and test their skills would get a chance to make it into the film. He figured a few dozen might volunteer, but almost two hundred tried out in an ironic, apropos moment. In a movie about learning how to take your shot, it's no surprise to see people in Detroit doing exactly that.
8 Mile is a triumph of low expectations. Sure, it's a decent film, but when you ponder the talent behind it -- directed by Curtis Hanson, produced by Brian Grazer -- one expects something more profound, more meaningful from its creators. What we get is pretty banal by dramatic standards, a rap version of Saturday Night Fever.
The film succeeded and surprised audiences back in 2002, because nobody expected a film about Eminem, starring Eminem, to be any good. And it was! But here we are, seven years later, after Eminem has been out of the spotlight for a few years, and it all feels a bit moot now. When you boil the film down to its elements, it's a pretty by-the-book story about the classic underdog. Hell, it's like The Karate Kid with rhymes instead of roundhouses.
Looking for a hip-hop showcase? Interested in a solid dramatic narrative? Yearning for a stylishly directed film? Or just morbidly curious about how well a movie with Eminem could possibly be? 8 Mile is decent no matter how you slice it, and 8 Mile (Blu-Ray) is a solidly impressive Blu-Ray presentation to boot. It lacks the depth one expects from such top-shelf talent, but the film defies critics by presenting a straightforward, solid drama brimming with positivity.
Definitely better than Cool as Ice. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Music Video